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Coming back from failure

Last year, I was asked to present a workshop session on social media for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Essentials Conference.  I couldn’t have been more confident. I had presented before, knew social media marketing well, and overall felt like it would be a breeze.

And then the session happened. 

I ended way too early because I ran out of stuff to talk about and very few people were asking questions.  Some left even earlier. I got maybe one or two courtesy laughs at my joke. There was no diligent note-taking.  I could feel the sweat dripping down my face as I spoke, but tried to brush it off, by telling myself I was totally doing wonderfully, people were just burnt out at the end of a long conference.

The evaluations told a different story, however.  They weren’t burnt out, they just didn’t like it. The courtesy laughs were just that - to make me feel less awkward because my jokes were not funny.  Someone commented that I was “unprofessional” because my powerpoint was just gifs and no content, and another complained about my session ending early because they were hoping for more content to help them in their work.

In summary, it was a gigantic failure.  

I’ll be totally frank - I cried.  More than once. I was anticipating some criticism - no one will please every single person - but not nearly that much.  I retreated into myself and constantly tore myself down, questioning why I had any ounce of confidence at the start and why I agreed to present in the first place.  

After the initial emotions wore off, I took a look at the evaluations again.  I noted which things were just a preference (some people really did enjoy the gifs), and then really took in the comments on things I needed to work on.  I should have taken more time to practice the presentation. I should have timed it out. I should have researched more into trends and statistics rather than relying on my own knowledge.  Instead of taking my failure as an opportunity to knock myself down, I took it as just simply an opportunity.

About 6 months later, one of our regional coordinators approached me and told me that nonprofits in the Duluth region were hoping for a workshop on social media, and asked if I would be willing to travel up and do it.  Instantly, all of those comments and the feelings associated with them came flooding back in my head, and I wanted with every inch of me to decline. I learned from my last presentation, sure, but that didn’t mean I wanted to do it again.  

Despite wanting to say no,  I told myself that the opportunity to learn would be a wasted one if I didn’t try it again.  So I took a look at the comments again. Some of the notes complained that I ended too early.  So I added more content, and included statistics, real-life examples, and expertise from people who knew way more than I did.  The comments on the gifs were mixed, and as a true YNPN-TC member I love them, so I did an intro slide for each section featuring a gif with content slides afterwards to find a happy medium between the two. I practiced. A lot.  Not only what was in my presentation, but how I presented it as well. I worked on slowing down, pausing for questions, and adding ways to interact with and engage the audience. The only thing I didn’t change were my jokes - those will always and forever be there and I would just take the pity laughs.  

While setting up for my workshop in Duluth, I could feel those pesky sweat droplets coming back.  Not only was this my first time presenting since the Essentials Conference fiasco, but this was something these people specifically paid for - it wasn’t part of a larger conference where I could rely on other workshops to redeem me if anything went south.  But I took a deep breath, tried to muster up some of the confidence I had before it got knocked down, and dove in.

It was night and day.  

There was diligent note-taking, people asked a lot of questions, and even thanked me after and requested my contact info for follow-up questions. I even got some laughs that I’m definitely telling myself were not out of pity.  The evaluations were even better. People noted that they enjoyed my presentation, they learned things that they would use in their organization, and overall, the remarks were overwhelmingly positive. It felt awesome. So awesome, that I went to two other places and gave the same presentation and wasn’t nearly as terrified.  

This long story gets to a very simple point.  Failure happens. To everyone. As much as I wanted to be the one outlier that succeeded at everything, that was never going to be a reality.  But as easy as it is to retreat and give up, so many amazing things can happen when you dust yourself off and go for it again. There’s a Twitter hashtag that is trending at the time of this going up where people are sharing their rejection stories, and it’s trending for a reason - we all have them.  How many times have we all heard the story of Harry Potter getting rejected time and time again before a publisher finally signing on (how anyone could reject something as perfect as Harry Potter is beyond my understanding). It happens to all of us, and it’s ok. You will move on, you will do better.  You’ll fail again, and then you’ll go through the cycle again, but this time you’ll be stronger.

Failure happens to everyone.  For example, this blog post was due a week ago and I failed at getting it in on time (sorry to our blog editor, Emily!).  But, I’m writing it sitting at the University of St.Thomas while the Nonprofit Essentials Conference goes on around me, an incredible reminder of the failure I came back from exactly a year ago.  Although this year, I am deciding to take my learnings the traditional way - taking notes from the audience.


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