If you’re a speaker with a lot of experience but would like to challenge yourself, sign up for an open mic today! It’s some of the scariest, most educational fun you’ll ever have! Today I’m going to tell you all about my own personal strange and tricky open mic storytelling experiences, and the take-aways I gained along the way.And before you bail because this sounds too scary, consider this: the stakes are low. Even if you crash and burn as a storyteller, unless your story is broadcast all over YouTube, it’s unlikely that your performance is going to negatively affect your professional life. (If in doubt, don’t invite important clients, or, um, your boss.) Yeah, you might embarrass yourself a little. But think about it - pride is a pretty small price to pay for mad skills.
One of my more recent distracting experiences involved an opera singer. You don’t really expect to hear opera being belted out in downtown Puerto Vallarta, but if you were expecting it, it just wouldn’t be the same, now would it?
Here’s what happened. I was telling an original story in a coffee shop located on a main street. I was already having to deal with the waitress taking orders and coffee cups clanging, but it was fine. I’d found my groove and I could see by their expressions that the audience was with me. And then from somewhere across the street, it started. An opera singer. In the split second when I realized what was happening, I thought about pausing. I thought about saying something about the elephant, I mean, opera singer, in the room. But I was at a crucial point in the story. I didn’t want to lose momentum. Plus, she wasn’t that loud. So I raised my voice just a tad and kept going. Gradually, her voice became louder. Not to be outdone, I spoke louder, too. Our voices competed for what seemed like forever, and somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered if a glass was going to break. Somehow, the audience was still with me, and finally, she finished the song! A few minutes later, I finished my story.
I thought about the incident later. Would it have been better to stop? Did I do the right thing by forging ahead? I decided that while it was a huge distraction indeed, the audience could hear me and more importantly, they were still paying attention. Plus, it would have been very difficult to recover and help the audience “re-enter” the story if I had stopped. So it felt like I did the right thing. But this tale isn’t over yet….
A few months later I was telling another story at the same place. I kept thinking about that opera singer. I couldn’t help but wonder if, by some bizarre cosmic coincidence, it was going to happen again. I even told my audience before I started how funny it had been, and that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Then, in the middle of my story, a remarkably loud bus passed by. It was so loud, in fact, that I was forced to pause at a point in my story where I had just said “Weeks passed....” And so, after the bus went by and we could hear again, I gestured to the street and said “Busses passed.” Everyone chuckled, and I continued.
I was glad that this time, even though I had no choice but to pause, I was able to be real, address the issue and move on. Sometimes, as in this case, you might as well go ahead and acknowledge the elephant, because it’s essentially stepping on everyone’s toes. It’s a judgment call, though, and you’ll get better at making these calls the more opportunities you have.
#1. Sh*t happens. And since you just never know when something weird and completely out of your control is going to happen, do your best to roll with it. If you don’t make it a big deal, neither will your audience.
#2. Sometimes rolling with the weirdness means pausing, or stopping altogether, and calling it out. Occasionally, if you pretend the weirdness isn’t happening, that just makes it weirder. If you can, make a joke. Say that somehow your worst nightmares left out this scenario. Anything to remind your audience that they are in good hands and it’s all gonna be o.k.
In addition to busses and opera singers, people who scowl can also be very distracting. While they’re certainly not unique to open mic audiences, open mics are a great way to face the frowners and develop thicker skin as a public speaker.
A while back I told a story at an open mic while I was traveling. This particular event is held in a theatre and feels like a proper show in which people are seated, the lights go down, and the artist steps on stage. This is perhaps the easiest type of setting because generally speaking, distractions are limited and you have full visibility of your audience. But I still had to deal with the “frowners” in the audience. There was one couple sitting in the front row, and the lighting was such that I could clearly see them absolutely scowling at me.
For a split second I was disconcerted. Wow, they must really hate this story. Don’t they realize the negative energy they’re putting off? Maybe they’re just concentrating...? Or maybe they’re thinking of something completely different and it has nothing to do with me at all? After several failed attempts to “woo” them with energy and eye contact, I decided to move on and focus my attention on more receptive members of the audience.
I can still clearly remember one woman from the audience in particular. She seemed to never take her eyes off me and smiled and laughed with abandon. I stopped looking at the scowly couple altogether, which made it easy for me to focus not only on this woman but also on others who appeared to be happy to go along for the ride. The ironic thing about that night is that I was able to be present in my story and on the stage in a way that I had never experienced before.
#1 If you can’t get people on board, move on. I did my best to draw that couple into the story, but when they didn’t budge, I stopped trying. It’s better to channel your energy where it’s being received than where it’s being rejected.
#2 Don’t take frowners personally. Maybe they were constipated. Some motivational speakers say that you should never take anything personally, ever. It’s something to think about.
Sometimes, though, there is no happy ending. In fact, sometimes your audience actually gets up and walks out. Earlier this year, I was telling that same story at another open mic here in Puerto Vallarta. This venue is very casual - although there is a stage, there’s also a bar just next to the stage, people are being served food and drinks during the show, etc. The logistics are also not great for a performer - the room is a long rectangle and includes seating on an outdoor patio. When I got on stage I immediately realized that I was going to need to have a “wide gaze” in terms of eye contact in order to not miss audience members sitting on the periphery.
As it turned out, that was the least of my challenges. Just a few minutes into my story a couple of men at the bar started talking in very loud voices, so loud that I wasn’t able to hold the attention of everyone in the audience and people started looking in their direction. Finally the owner of the theatre got up and asked them to keep it down. I avoided looking in their direction as all of this was transpiring so as not to be (even more) distracted.
While I continued, I could hear the waiters just to my left talking quietly to one other. I doubled down on my concentration, focusing on a few couples who rewarded me with smiles and laughter. Then one of these couples got up to leave. That’s odd, I thought. They looked like they were really enjoying themselves. Then a few more people got up to leave. Wow, I thought - I have really misread this crowd. At the same time, more people wandered in, and one new couple in front of me didn’t even seem to be aware that I was performing. I forged ahead, determined to deliver a good story no matter what, shifting and re-shifting my focus to whomever was obviously listening at the moment. By the time I had finished and stepped off stage, the audience had shrunk considerably. I was pretty sure it wasn’t because I had given a bad performance, so I was confused, and trying not to take it personally. (See previous take-away.)
The MC said I was a pro for not missing a beat with all of that commotion. While I appreciated his kind words, I mostly just wanted to know what had happened. Later, privately, he explained to me that a lot of people had come to the bar for a drink before the concert downstairs began. When it was approaching time for the concert to begin, they had to leave. He said one couple even asked him to be sure to tell me that they really enjoyed my story but needed to take their seats downstairs.
I learned a lot that night. Here are my take-aways:
#1 - Don’t assume you suck just because people are walking out. Boy, was I glad I hadn’t jumped to any conclusions.
#2 - The folks who stay from start to finish deserve your all, so bring it, even if there’s only one person left. In fact, I was so grateful to that handful of people who stayed until the end that I was super motivated to deliver, just for them.
#3 - Fall in love as many times as you have to during a performance. Here’s what I mean. In a situation with a lot of distractions, find those people who are smiling and clearly interested and pour your energy into them. Then, if they get up and walk out, leaving you like a jilted lover on the stage, shamelessly rebound as fast as you can, finding someone else to love. If it happens again, as it did to me that night, rebound again! The important thing is to not dwell on the who or why, but stay present in your story and with your (remaining) audience.
Having said all that, would you still believe me if I told you that open mics are fun?! Everyone is trying their best and cracking up and forgetting and recovering all at the same time, and audiences are generally quite supportive and forgiving. If you like telling stories, you've gotta do it! It’ll put you under a different kind of pressure that you might not be used to as a public speaker, and you’ll get even better than you already are.
And before you go, hit one of the share buttons ...after all, open mics are always more fun with friends. :)