I was scheduled to speak about "Thinking on Your Toes" to a group of employees at a consumer organization. I was well-prepared; I had interviewed several people from the audience over the phone and I had my notes, handouts and driving directions ready.
I arrived onsite more than an hour early and stopped in the restroom on the way to having lunch with the participants. A few seconds later, I felt a sharp pain in the back of my leg, as if I had been poked by a needle. I looked down at the floor and saw a black-winged insect that was fully grown and looked like it had been reared on steroids and protein shakes. I realized that it was a wasp, shortly before crushing it with my shoe.
I had never been stung by a wasp or a bee in my life. Ever. So I had no idea whether I was allergic.
I considered the situation. There were 50 people in the room next door getting ready to have lunch and then listen to me speak. And I had planned an interactive session that included improvisational exercises. What if my leg swelled up, or the sting hurt too much to stand comfortably? How could I lead a session on "Thinking on Your Toes" when I was sitting down? Or worse, what if I had a severe allergic reaction and went into shock right in front of the audience?
So I went out to the hallway, told one of the program organizers what had happened and asked if there were any medical personnel on duty. She looked shocked and then quickly made a phone call. In less than three minutes, the security guard who had let me into the building earlier arrived with his little black bag since he was a certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).
Off we went to the first aid room - Joe the EMT, the program organizer and me, limping along, and I got the grand tour along the way, because of course, the first aid room was on the other side of the building.
I kept saying, "This is going to make a great story! I am so going to use this story!" It's what a trainer or speaker calls a "teachable moment," when something happens that you can't ignore and you use it to make a point. (It's what normal people call a "Murphy's Law moment" and an improv comedian calls a perfect opportunity!)
Joe gathered my medical history and checked to ensure that my breathing, blood pressure and heart rate were all normal. After administering topical cream, antihistamines and an ice pack, he concluded that I showed no signs of a severe allergic reaction and that I could go ahead with the program as planned.
So, at 1 p.m., I went on as scheduled, with only some soreness and mild swelling. I led the participants through a series of improv exercises that helped them get comfortable thinking on their feet, which is a crucial part of their jobs. Of course, I shared the wasp story with them, showed off my ice pack and made the connection to "Thinking on Your Toes."
The next day, one of the organizers emailed me: "Your presentation was filled with interactive fun and useful information. The activities you planned encouraged us to go beyond our comfort zones and, as made obvious by the laughter that filled the room, your games were engaging and thoroughly enjoyed." Then she added, "My, what extent you go through to give examples of 'thinking on your toes'!"
What is the moral of the story? Despite your best plans and preparations for a presentation or anything else, sometimes things just happen that are outside your control. Then you have to think on your feet, rely on your experience and your skills and ask for help when needed. Be confident and trust that you will say and do the "right" thing - and the "right" thing is defined as the best that you can do in that moment, given those circumstances.
So the next time the unexpected happens and you have to think on your feet, be confident that you can handle it - just watch out for the wasp!