Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

A few speaking slots available in 2025

How doing badly can help us do better

Speaking in Shanghai

I have a tendency towards perfectionist behaviour. I welcome the advantages of this: it pushes me to do well most of the time. That obviously makes me happy(ish). A major part of my work involves public speaking, giving talks in schools or at festivals or conferences, and the event organisers can be confident that they will get a very high standard of presentation from me. Usually, setting high standards produces good results.

Perfectionism, however, is most often viewed as a problem. Certainly, there are obvious disadvantages to it. I spend a lot of time being dissatisfied with my performance, despite knowing deep down that I did do a good enough job – but good enough is never good enough for a perfectionist; I often suffer from consequent stress; and I lose out on the feeling of satisfaction that others would feel after doing a perfectly good enough job.

But sometimes such dissatisfaction can be turned into an advantage and then I experience the real power and value of that perfectionist streak.

And so it was recently when I did a bad job. I really did. In my opinion.

I was giving a keynote at a conference about the reading brain and the power and point of reading for pleasure. Although it’s a familiar topic for me, it was never going to be an easy task, for the following reasons:

  1. It was a very wide audience, spanning primary and secondary teachers – so, all with different working environments and very varying opportunities to put into practice what I was saying. It was going to be difficult to reach all of them equally. And I always like to reach everyone equally.
  2. Because it was a conference, I couldn’t know what other speakers would cover – and I didn’t have the programme in advance, which I should have asked for.
  3. I have a LOT to say on the subject and it’s very difficult to squish it into the space of one talk. After all, I quite often do half day or even whole days on the topic of building reading for pleasure into schools.
  4. As the audience were not specialists in reading theory and science, I couldn’t expect them to know a lot of what I’d ideally want them to know – although some of them would so I also couldn’t be too basic.

For all of those reasons, I spent a lot of time preparing the actual presentation. Rightly.

So, what went wrong?

The presentation itself was fine, contentwise. I think. It was as good as it good have been, given the above. But I was physically uncomfortable, verbally unrelaxed and mentally tense. Specifically, I waffled for the first minute or two, which unsettled me. Maybe no one noticed – no one said. But I was thrown and my brain then split into two threads: 1) “Stick to the slides because you don’t have time to extemporise” and 2) “Calm down – you’re doing OK and starting to panic is not going to help.”

When I talk about resilience – the ability to bounce back from “failure” or setback – I talk about using metacognition. So let’s do that now because this is how we learn from failure and why doing badly should lead to doing better. Failure can breed success.

What is metacognition?

Cognition means “thinking, knowing, learning, working, trying” – all the high-end human aspects of mental processing. Metacognition means thinking about those things. What was going on in my mind when I did XYZ? Why did this thing go wrong or right? What were the positive or negative things I was doing when I tried to achieve that goal?

And it’s very powerful because once you start to unpick what went wrong you find that some things were in your power (and therefore you could do them differently next time) and some weren’t, (so on the one hand you don’t need to worry about them but on the other hand it’s good to be prepared if they happen again).

Why did what went wrong go wrong for me?

The main problem was that, for a few reasons, I didn’t spend any time at all planning my introduction, that first one or two minutes where you settle yourself and the audience into the right mindset for what is to follow.

Why did I not plan the intro:

  1. I lacked time and headspace in the days leading up to the conference
  2. And I thought this didn’t matter because my experience is that I always manage to say something sensible and appropriate in these situations – I’m too confident, too experienced? And this came back to bite me.

But I need to use metacognition a bit more: if I “always” manage to wing the introduction but didn’t on this occasion, why didn’t I? Because some things happened that threw me and made me self-conscious and unrelaxed. Let’s look at those because they could happen again:

  1. The stage was very high and large and I had to walk up some steep steps with the audience behind me.
  2. I wasn’t introduced, beyond a lovely “Here is the amazing Nicola Morgan” so I didn’t have those important few seconds to compose myself and look at the audience before speaking. This was no one’s fault – I appreciate the need to keep everything to time and also my biog was in the programme. But it meant I had to walk up and get all my bits and bobs in place while the audience was watching and waiting for me to start. That time felt endless and I rushed it because I needed to start speaking. (And I can’t speak while doing things with my hands!)
  3. I was trapped by needing to stand at the lectern because that was where the microphone was. When offered that choice earlier on, I had misheard and thought my choice was lectern or hand-held, rather than clip-on. I would have chosen walkabout if I’d realised in time. But this was my fault.
  4. That meant I couldn’t see the screen at floor level so I had to keep turning round to see the main screen to check that the slide had come up. My eyesight isn’t good enough and none of my glasses were right for that distance.
  5. The timings were different from what I’d been told so I had to reboot my brain – and the timings had also gone slightly askew so I was going to have just under the planned time. And I had already been worried that I had too much to say!
  6. There wasn’t any water on stage. Fortunately, I had my own but a) that was an extra thing to carry up those steps, along with my bag, and b) I had to put it on the floor, which meant laboriously and publicly bending down and undoing the top of my water bottle. While everyone looked at me…
  7. It was a very daunting theatre but this shouldn’t matter – it’s just that I am very self-conscious! I’m fine if I can be on the stage for a bit before I talk and settle myself into the geography of everything.

I’m also really tired at the moment and have various distracting things going on. This is not an excuse, just part of unpicking why I didn’t feel I did a good enough job. Tiredness and distractions are things I need to work around; they should not affect how I do my work.

There were a couple of other things: a somewhat stressful drive to get to the place and not getting enough lunch because of having to rush. Why did I not have my usual pot of nuts and dried fruit with me? Again, I think it’s the tiredness and distraction but there’s not really an adequate excuse.

Then, of course, there’s anxiety

Anxiety, stress, nervousness – they’re all the same process in the brain and body, although we use the words in different contexts. And in many of my books but especially in the newest one, No Worries – How to deal with teenage anxiety, I make the point that anxiety is natural, healthy and positive. A bit of anxiety helps you raise your game and achieve highly. But what happened with me at this conference is that my natural anxiety got the better of me and allowed me to underperform for a couple of minutes.

It took me by surprise because I don’t get nervous before talks. I’m a confident speaker and do it without sweating at all.

BUT there’s the problem. I was too confident and I had forgotten the anxiety is natural, healthy and positive. So when it jumped up at me I wasn’t ready.

What can we learn from this?

Metacognition should not only allow me to see why it went wrong but, far more importantly, what I can learn that will make this not happen again.

My recipe for brain bars

How can I do (even) better next time

  1. Prepare an intro properly! I know I can speak off the cuff but when my brain is trying to deal with discomfort it will not be as good. Not even good enough. So, think what to say in advance, with three bullet points that are easy to remember.
  2. Find a way to stand on the stage and get a feel for it before I’m actually standing on the stage. I could have done this during the lunch break.
  3. Choose a clip-on mic if at all possible. Rookie error.
  4. Be more confident in the conversation with the organiser to make sure I have what I need on the stage. They aren’t meant to be mind-readers!
  5. Don’t forget the brain-boosting fruit and nuts! In fact, remember to make this Brain Bar recipe of my own.

Do you know a perfectionist? Do you know someone who has recently not done as good a job as they wished? Let them read this article and talk about how it can apply to them. Unpicking what went wrong leads us to be resilient and have the courage and resources to face the job again.

Failure really can lead to success.

I can’t wait till my next keynote speech so I can prove to myself that I can do a more than good enough job from the moment I stand up, not just the last 58 minutes of the hour!

By the way, I did still keep to time, which is really all any conference organiser wants…

Have you entered the giveaway for No Worries?

Do consider buying this Gift for a Teenager

Thank you to all the lovely audience the other day, especially the ones who said appreciative things afterwards.! It was a very well-organised conference, with masses going on, so I know the audience had a good time because I heard really positive comments in the loos! personally, my highlights were listening to a brilliant talk by Charlotte Hacking of CLPE and meeting Joseph Coelho, the current children’s laureate. He and I bought and signed each other’s books!

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