The Bacon Brothers band had fans on their feet at a concert in Ocean City, New Jersey when the microphone squealed and speakers started blaring high pitched ear-piercing squeals called feedback.
The audience grimaced, some holding their ears, while the band instantly stopped and started fiddling with the dials on their amplifiers. Yet, what could have turned negative by turning fans off, actually turned positive thanks to the quick thinking and perhaps experience of lead singer Kevin Bacon.
Instead of making his audience uncomfortable by acting uncomfortable or showing embarrassment over the mishap, Bacon said “typically these things happen during sound check, where only special people are invited. You, my friends, are these special people.”
The audience roared with laughter. Not only did Bacon turn what could have been an embarrassing moment into a joke, but he made the audience feel important.
This is an important lesson for speakers of all levels. All of us make mistakes. The slides crash. We forget what we wanted to say. We leave out an important point. Perhaps we trip or stumble in front of a group. However, if we are not embarrassed, our audiences won’t be embarrassed for us. How we react and recover is how we’ll be judged.
Leading in times of crisis is no different. How an executive or spokesperson reacts under pressure can determine how their company or product will be judged.
Consider Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, the retired airline pilot who made a successful emergency landing in the Hudson River with 155 passengers on board. A flock of geese flew into the jet during take-off. All passengers survived and no one was hurt.
In an interview with Parade magazine, he talked about the importance of staying calm when announcing “brace for impact” to passengers just 90 seconds before hitting the water. He said “I wanted to be very direct. I didn’t want to sound agitated or alarmed.”
Sharp leaders understand that tone and words make a difference if you want to keep others calm during a crisis.
My father is one of those leaders we can all learn lessons from. Last year, he was diagnosed with a significant health issue. Despite the severity of the disease, endless treatments and infusions, he has stayed calm and upbeat throughout the ordeal and that is what has kept our family calm.
Those who study stress will tell you it’s natural for people to panic, react emotionally and think about worse case scenarios when something negative occurs. Yet, if you can take a step back and gather the appropriate information before instantly reacting, you will be better positioned to take a more measured and thoughtful approach to the situation. In our own crisis training programs, we encourage people to focus on the opportunity moving forward, not wallow in the crisis.
For example, if you unexpectedly lose your job, it’s easy to focus on your anger, defeat, or the boss you didn’t like. If it was a job that required a lot of unwanted time away from your family, perhaps there is now an opportunity to re-evaluate your priorities and pursue different avenues.
The iconic late Steve Jobs is an excellent example of someone who turned crisis into opportunity. When Jobs was fired from Apple, he went to work for an animation company that is now Pixar. When Disney bought Pixar, he became the company’s largest shareholder.
Whether professional or personal, we will all experience some type of embarrassment or crisis in our lives. The key is to change the conversation you’re having with yourself. When you do that, you will change the conversation you need to have with others.
My youngest son was 12 years old when he landed a lead role in his camp production of the Greek comedy Lysistrata. Toward the end of a wonderful performance, he forgot his lines. The audience fell silent. For my husband and me, the seconds that followed ticked endlessly as we were nervous for him. Suddenly, a proctor standing off to the side of the stage shouted out the line. He looked off stage and shouted back “what”?
She yelled it again, this time loud enough for the entire audience to hear. We sunk in our seats as some of the campers in the audience started to snicker. But our boy didn’t let that get to him. He stopped, smiled, looked out into the audience, and then pointing off stage quipped, “Whatever she said!” The crowd laughed loudly and thundered applause as the aspiring actor took an unscripted bow. They were laughing with him, not at him. He changed the conversation.
I read an article that said “in a crisis, it’s important not to let your emotions hijack you” if you want to manage the fight or flight response. It went on to point out that science has shown the best way to create a cohesive and coherent response is to do so with your head, heart and gut.
That means balanced breathing to calm down so you can tap into your heart to identify what’s important to you. From there, you can use your head and trust your gut to make solid decisions when you speak and act.
Whether dealing with something as critical as a life-threatening emergency landing or something far simpler like forgetting your line in a play or having your speakers blare feedback, when it’s happening to you, it feels like a crisis. Yet there is a similarity in all of these situations.
Like the Bacon Brothers, when we tune ourselves to focus on others, we can often turn something negative into something positive.