Unless you’ve worked with me, you may not know this, but I am the self-proclaimed Queen of “Winging It”. It’s the curse of procrastinators everywhere that what must eventually be done is done under duress extreme time pressure. Sooner or later, if you’re a bad learner not unlike me, that means throwing caution to the wind and just doing it.
The years I have spent honing this craft have resulted in an innate belief that I can do almost anything with enough pressure and confidence.
This weekend I was a headline performer at the Mandorah Ukulele and Folk Festival.
A few days out from the performance, I get the run sheet that says I’m to be onstage for up to 70 minutes (including setup – which takes all of 3 mins- and breakdown – which takes even less). This would present no problem, if I wasn’t used to and expecting a 40-45 minute set. Those extra 15-20 minutes means 4-5 songs plus preamble and potentially rearranging the order to maintain or recreate the flow. At the same time, I need to plan for contingencies such as playing faster than usual and getting through my songs quicker than expected, or the timing on the day running over and having to cut songs out with the call of “15 minutes to go”.
Reflecting back on my prep for the weekend, I noticed I did a few things that are consistent with how I plan for presentations or training workshops:
- Over-prep the content: Plan and rehearse all the songs possible to give me more than required (in a presentation, I’d have prepared more slides or talking points or resources to point people to)
- Identify the fundamental: I’ll pick the 4-5 “must play” songs by looking at, for example, the lead songs on my EP and the emotive flow I want for my set (upbeat, slower, show off riff, big voice, upbeat and dancier to end)
- Map and highlight: Map out the prepped songs to that flow, identify the time markers that raise decision points (20 mins to go means finish current songs and have just 4 more to end) and highlight the surplus songs that can be cut out or added in as time permits
- Go with the flow: Know that it’s not going to go to plan, accept that and do it anyway
When I think of going with the flow, I’m reminded of when I opened the Moodlemoot AU in 2014. I’d prepared a 15-20 minute presentation, covering the important themes of the confererence, acknowledgement of owners (and its relevance), administrative information and a little bit of humour. The keynote presenter who started, however, ended about 10-15 minutes over time, which meant in order to keep the rest of the program on track – which is the most important thing in a multi-streamed conference, in my opinion – I had to condense my opening of less than 10 minutes.
One of my pet hates is when presenters are pressed for time and instead of cutting or deciding to make info available afterwards (and it’s almost de rigeur for conference presentations to be available to attendees after anyway), they waste time saying “I don’t have much time, so I’ll go quickly through these”.
The correct answer is: “we have a little less time together than expected, so I’ll discuss the key points I want you to take away and the full presentation will be available afterwards”. A better answer is: not to mention the time at at all and just cut to the fundamental concepts and make the presentation available. That 15-30 seconds you spend explaining something that the audience might not even know about it wasted. Just like I don’t stop and point out when I’ve made a mistake when performing, don’t point out when things aren’t going to plan – the majority of people won’t notice or care.
Which brings me to the fundamental principle of winging it – confidence is key.
If you’re calm, breathe and smile, no one will know you’re freaking out on the inside. No one should know what to expect, because surely you wouldn’t be repeating the exact same set/presentation/training workshop/etc that many times to the same people, would you? Therefore, if they don’t know how it’s supposed to be, the best they’re getting is what you have to give, so be calm, breathe, smile and give it your best and don’t call attention to how it could/should have been because that’s irrelevant.
I’m wondering, though, how much of that can be taught and how? How does one learn to make as much structure as possible and have confidence that the rest will be ok? Is it just experience? Are there (coping) strategies to help teach agility and adaptability? It seems to me that for all the cries of “kids need to learn to code” or “we need more STEM graduates“, if the future is as uncertain as they say, wouldn’t we do better to teach how to wing it?