“Houston, We Have a Problem!”
Those were the words of astronaut Jack Swigert aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft on April 13, 1970.
Apollo 13 was the seventh crewed mission in the Apollo space program and the third intended to land on the Moon . The craft was launched on April 11, 1970, from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida , but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, crippling the service module (SM) upon which the command module (CM) had depended.
Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water , and the critical need to make makeshift repairs to the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17, 1970, six days after launch. (Ref: Wikipedia, “Apollo 13”)
So what does the Apollo 13 accident and recovery of the crew have to do with public speaking? Plenty. We can learn a number of things from the Apollo 13 astronauts that, if practiced diligently, will make us outstanding public speakers.
A Peaceful Mind Generates Power
In his self-help classic, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” Chapter 2 is entitled, “A Peaceful Mind Generates Power.” Probably more often than not, when technical professionals have the prospect of preparing and delivering a presentation, there is a slow and, sometimes, not so slow buildup of stress during the presentation preparation period.
I am not a psychiatrist, but I have live enough of life to know stress deteriorates your brain function. As an engineer, I fall back on my structured way of thinking when I am under stress. I look for solutions, instead of problems. That is exactly what the Apollo 13 flight and ground crew did. Remember the classic line from Apollo 13 Flight Director, Gene Krantz: “Failure is not an option.”
How many times are we our own worst enemy preparing for a presentation telling ourselves bad self-talk such as “This will never work” or “I don’t see I have enough time to prepare for this presentation” or “I will look like a fool giving this presentation.” You fill in your words.
Remember, the audience does not know when you have left out a part of your presentation or forgot to credit a quote to a person, or shortened your closing because you forgot half of it.
Read Chapter 2 of “The Power of Positive Thinking” and your peaceful mind will generate the power you need to prepare and deliver an outstanding presentation.
Never Give In
On October 29, 1941 after leading the survival of Great Britain in the Battle of Britain and still facing the Nazi menace, Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, gave the commencement address at the Harrow School, his alma mater. In his closing remarks, he said this: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
But who is your enemy when preparing your presentation? Your enemy is your set of doubts about yourself you have accumulated over your lifetime! Your job is to slay these doubts and triumph like Churchill and Great Britain did. So how can you do this.
Well, first you have to realize that when you create a presentation, all the doubts about you that you have every felt in your life will come to the forefront. It is kind of like the old commercial on TV where the person is trying to decide something with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other shoulder. The angel represents all the possibilities of ways to prepare and deliver an outstanding presentation and the devil represents all the doubts you have ever accumulated in your life.
Most people are aware that action follows thought. We think about wanting a book, so we go to the bookstore and buy it. Not many people realize that thought can also follow action. Norman Vincent Peale once said, “If you want a quality, act as if you already have it. If you want to be courageous, act as if you were – and as you act and persevere in acting, so you tend to become.” In other words, act “as if.”
Act with yourself, with the people you meet, and in your presentation delivery as though you are an outstanding speaker. With repetition of these actions, your thoughts will gradually turn to solutions for your speaking challenges and you will open your mind and see solutions you heretofore (Sorry, I always wanted to say that word) were hidden to you.
Never give in to your doubts and fears. Remember, courage is not not feeling fear, courage is feeling fear and fighting through it.
So how did the ground and flight crew fix the problem aboard Apollo 13?
The big problem was the astronauts were inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. If the air in the command module was not constantly purified of the carbon dioxide, it would be deadly. The ground and flight crew improvised a way to join the Lithium-Hydroxide cube-shaped filter canisters to the lunar module’s cylindrical canister-sockets by drawing air through them with a suit return hose. It was a brilliant and risky endeavor, but it worked.
Reward without risk does not exist. I am not sure if any of you have ever experienced the harrowing experience of the Apollo 13 astronauts, but I bet you have felt jitters and, maybe, outright sickness before you give a presentation. Human ingenuity is not the only province of the Apollo 13 ground and aircrew. It is yours too!
So the traits of the astronauts using their peaceful minds, never giving in, and using their ingenuity can be readily applied to preparing and delivering an outstanding presentation.
Risk smartly and reap the rewards!
“Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped; our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” Stating the thing broadly, he went on to write: “The human individual thus lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum.
William James in his essay, “On Vital Reserves”