The Curse of Expectation
Having been a long-suffering follower of the Golden State Warriors when they were terrible for over 20 years, it is with unreserved glee that I revel in the 2015 championship, last year’s record-breaking season, and this season’s acquisition of superstar Kevin Durant. But you don’t have to be a Warriors fan, a basketball aficionado, or even a sports enthusiast to appreciate the life lessons of this tale.
Kevin Durant decided to leave Oklahoma City, where he was beloved, because he thought he could improve his professional situation. The Warriors took him in because they’re not stupid. The NBA allowed it because the league has historically thrived on the construction of mega-powerhouse teams. And the public bemoaned the move because its loyalties are notoriously fickle.
It’s this last dynamic that proves most fascinating. I appreciate why OKC fans are upset: they feel betrayed by Durant and booed him every time his hands touched the ball when the two teams played earlier this month. And while I think it’s silly, I understand national media figures speaking out against the move as “hurting the integrity of the game,” or “making a cowardly choice,” or as professional buffoon Charles Barkley said, “simply cheating.”
From heroes to villains
The more intriguing situation is the light now cast on the Warriors. They were the darlings of the league during the 2014-2015 season, as their undersized cast of sharpshooters won the hearts of sports fans everywhere, defeating the Darth Vader of the league, LeBron James, in the Finals. Everyone loves underdog and Cinderella stories, and the Warriors became America’s favorite team. This continued through the 2015-2016 season, as hundreds of Stephen Curry jerseys could be seen in every arena around the country. They ran, they shot, they exuded joy, they played unselfish team basketball, and they seemed like likeable characters.
That all changed overnight. The sports world woke up on July 4 to the big news, and now the Warriors are none of those things. They are no longer the underdogs, the darlings, the lovable sharpshooters. The entire country outside of the SF Bay Area will be rooting against them now. Now they are the Darth Vaders. All because a supremely talented player wanted to play for them.
You will have to curb many of your sensibilities here. What were team officials going to say — no thank you, Kevin Durant, but actually we don’t want you to join our team? You will also have to overlook the undeniable fact that Durant possesses the same qualities that the Warriors were known for: selfless, ego-free, team-oriented talent. None of that matters. In the words of one syndicated columnist, “if the Warriors do not win it all next year, they will be miserable failures.”
Wow. Can you imagine shouldering that level of burden? That might prove to be a higher price tag than the $55M the team will pay KD across the next two years. In just about all areas of professional life, people have worked hard to manage expectations. We would rather overachieve than risk underachieving. Publicly-traded companies see their stocks dip if their announced profits were high but not as high as analysts expected them to be. Candidates for office consider it a liability to be thought of as professional debaters, lest they be expected to outperform everyone else on the stage, bringing rise to the inevitable first words out of the mouths of politicians after debates: “well, you know, I’m not a professional debater like _________.”
And then there’s us. Then there’s you, the public speaker. What types of expectations are put upon you, by whom, and how do you handle them? Would you rather be regarded as the underdog by your adoring public, or would you rather they expect the highest possible standard from you? These are not easy questions to answer.
“Bear with me”
In writing this article, I realize now that I left out an entry in last month’s Don’t Say That!, a short compendium of things never to say before an audience. How many times have you heard presenters begin a talk by offering a proviso of some sort. It might be the cold they contracted overnight, or their jet lag, or the fact that the room is not set the way it is supposed to, or the projector sucks, or the microphone is broken. They then implore you to “bear with me.”
Don’t ever say that to your audience! First off, what does it even mean? Let’s try to parse it. There is this really bad situation here and it is likely to affect my performance. I’m going to try to get through it; I’m going to bear it. It’s going to be really bad for you all, too, so I’m hoping that you will be able to bear it, also. I’m asking you to bear it with me.
Of all the terrible things to say to your audience: I’m going to be bad and it’s going to be bad for you, too. Why do we do this to ourselves? This is the game within the game — the game of managing expectations. In this game, performances are all relative, based on the level at which you are expected to perform. If you say you’re going to suck and then you don’t really suck that much, that’s a victory for you, oh boy!
You have one standard, never two
When you play the expectation game, you compromise every aspect of the presentation experience. You ask your audience members to count on something less than they were hoping for and you make it virtually impossible to operate at your best. You cheat your audience and you cheat yourself. Nobody ever wins when you lower expectations.
You combat this by constantly reminding yourself that you have a singular objective in life’s important pursuits, like public speaking: to perform at your very best. Every single time. You might not always reach it, but if you don’t try, you never will. Never look at obstacles as reasons to lower your standards; only look at them as opportunities to be even better. A friend and colleague was due to speak at the Presentation Summit a few years back but woke to discover she was losing her voice. Not complete laryngitis, in which case she could not have gone on at all, but well on the way to it. She was tempted to play the “bear with me” card, but ultimately thought better of it. She asked us to give her a hand-held microphone instead of the traditional lapel mic and to boost the gain a bit. She then took a page out of her own playbook by speaking in hushed tones and employing dramatic pauses. The slightest rise in her vocal level was commanding and she used this subtle dynamic range to great effect. She reminded herself to speak from her diaphram, not her throat, she moved a lot of air, and she spoke slowly. All things that we coaches coach others to do.
And she killed it. A standing ovation at her conclusion and all 4s and 5s on her evaluation. The only question for her was “can I go on or can I not?” Once she decided that she could, she committed herself to being at her very best. She not only avoided the curse of expectation, she also refused to acknowledge its evil twin: the excuse.
There might be legitimate reasons and conditions that conspire to prevent you from operating at your best, but you must never acknowledge them. Once you do, it is very hard to avoid looking for them and finding them. And when you do that, you make it impossible to reach potential. Excuses are a defense mechanism; as long as they are present, you can protect your ego by explaining away bad performance. The only way you can truly be at your best is to risk total failure. I gave it 100% effort and I failed, or I gave it 100% effort and I succeeded. But if you point to an excuse, it means you did not put forth 100% effort in the first place.
By the way, I promised that I would not divulge the name of the presenter who battled through her laryngitis. To this day, she does not want you to know that she faced that challenge. Even after the fact, she thinks it could sound like an excuse.
Back to Steph Curry. In the first round of the playoffs, he sprained his ankle and then his knee, missing four games. Upon his return, as NBA officials allow increasing amounts of physical contact during the playoffs, the relatively slight Curry was subject to more and more physical abuse. In the semi-finals, he couldn’t run under the basket without getting elbowed or shoved by the three big men on the Thunder, and in the Finals, LeBron James literally grabbed Curry and threw him to the floor on multiple occasions. Beat reporters covering the playoffs speculated in their coverage whether Curry was still feeling the effects of his injuries; more likely, he was just getting beaten up.
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr knowingly took a $25,000 fine during a post-game press conference for complaining about the officials, but Curry said nothing; not once did he complain about what was happening to him. “Sure, it’s physical out there,” he said, “but you have to expect that in the playoffs. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”
Curry knew that there were two choices for him: compete or not. He would either sit out or he would declare himself 100% ready to perform at the highest possible level. And when he didn’t do that — when he played poorly in the final game, missing many open shots in the fourth quarter — he accepted the defeat without offering any reasons or excuses. “It hurts. I didn’t do enough to help my team win and that will haunt me for a while. It’ll be good next year, remembering this feeling and being an even better player.”
Curry might play the villain this year, but he should be your hero for life. Can you be like him? Can you shrug off expectation and disregard excuses? Can you command the frame of mind that compels you to always try to be at your best? Of all the tips, tricks, advice, and skills associated with public speaking, finding a way to answer yes to that question might be the most important quality of all.