If you have ever given a presentation in public, you have thought about the Doomsday Scenario. It can be anything from passing out in public and peeing your pants on stage to forgetting what you were going to say and having your slides not work (and you were relying on your slides to work). There’s also the Doomsday Scenario. That’s when everything goes wrong. It all just collapses. Of course, that doesn’t really happen (then, again, I don’t think anybody who speaks in public can forget the whole Michael Bay scenario, can we?). Meltdowns do occur and we all think (and prepare) for those worst case scenarios as best as we can. The stakes get raised at an event like TED. TED is like the Superbowl of presentations. And, the last thing that anybody wants is for it all to fall apart in front of an audience like that… not to mention that it’s all being recorded for the world to see. That’s what happened in 2008, at the last TED conference that was held in Monterey, California. It was also the first TED conference that I had the pleasure of attending.
A special event.
It wasn’t even on the schedule, but towards the end of the first day, TED Curator, Chris Anderson, announced that the BBC would be doing a live broadcast for their show, The World Debate, on the state of media. It was a panel discussion featuring Google‘s Sergey Brin, Dan Gilbert, Queen Noor of Jordan and others. It was an impressive group in front of an impressive audience. I was a TED virgin. I wasn’t prepared. I thought being invited to TED gave me access, but I quickly learned that there are social dynamics at play within TED. There are groups within groups and events outside of the events. Deals being discussed. Parties being organized and much more. Once you come to that realization (and once you realize that you have invitations to none of them), it’s easy to get your tires deflated. I was interested in attending this panel, but the truth is that I had nowhere else to go. In hindsight, I was lucky. I wound up walking over to the session and sitting next to Julian Treasure. I document that meeting – and the friendship we have created and maintained for over six years – in much more detail, right over here: How To Make Everything You Say A Treasure To Your Audience, but something else magical happened on this night. As the live BBC event got underway, and the host/moderator began his introductions in a very seriously British accent, everything went dead. Doomsday Scenario. The live feed to the BBC, the audio to the audience… everything but the lights. The lights. The lights were pounding down on this stage of luminaries who played the whole laughing-it-off mixed with a whiff of panic and doused in a hint of, "does anybody else know what’s going on here?" It didn’t last for a few seconds. It was a couple of minutes. Julian and I were sitting towards the back of the theatre, when suddenly the silence was broken by someone screaming in what seemed like a British accent. It went something like…
"Right then… have got it all sorted out yet?"
"Nah… the blasted system is down!"
"What kind of crappy system do we have going on here?"
Things got weird.
The TED audience is dressed in business casual, but the tension in the air and the caliber of the event was all black tie on your best behavior. The breaking of the silence was out of place. Uncomfortable. We looked off over our right shoulders to find Robin Williams sitting there, impersonating an agitated AV crew. Hilarious. Robin was suddenly the kid in the back of the class making fun of the teacher without a worry in the world. Quickly the stiff-lipped "shhhs" turned to laughs, and as word of Robin’s antics made their way down to the front of the theater, a visibly agitated Chris Anderson began to chuckle, and then he waved Williams down to the front.
This is what happened next…
That clip does not do justice to being there, in the moment, and watching Williams turn a Doomsday Scenario into one of the funniest memories I have of any live event (and trust me, I’ve been to a lot of them). It’s not just that Williams was funny, off the cuff and improvising while being brilliant. It’s not just that he was sharp and quick to move. He took a room of people who had just gathered and, in a very profound way, created amazing comfort and camaraderie in a room full of people who were just starting to connect to one another. We were all in on the joke. We had all shared in this special moment. We were all connected and connecting because of it. I wrote in my notepad:
"If you can do one thing when you have the stage, it is to create total comfort where there is discomfort, uncertainty or stiffness."
At the time, I chalked it up to Williams’ ability and skill at stand-up comedy and improv. Over time, I slowly realized that it was less about that, and more about one’s ability to have a warm personality… especially in the face of trouble and uncertainty. After the event, I realized that I didn’t have dinner plans, and it seemed like people were off to their own private dinners (more circles). I went back to my hotel room, but quickly realized that I should take advantage of being in Monterey and – at the very least grab a bite and try to find a book store. The concierge was helpful, and as I began to walk out into the streets, I found myself walking in-step with another hotel guest/TED attendee. I didn’t say anything, but they turned to me and said:
"What’s doing tonight, Chief?"
"Not much… just going to grab some dinner and head to bed early… my head’s still light from the flight in," I responded.
"Where are you in from?"
"Montreal, Canada is home," I responded, "but I flew in from Halifax."
"I have a lot of great memories from Montreal," he said. "They have an amazing comedy festival up there."
It was then that I realized I was walking and having a private conversation with Robin Williams.
I got nervous. I told him that I knew one of the founders of the festival (Hey, Andy Nulman!). I told him that I’m sorry I didn’t recognize or acknowledge him right away. I told him I was a fan… and that I’m sure everybody tells him that. He just smiled. Warmly. Wow. He was very warm. There is something about him. It’s obviously palpable on screen, but in real life it has a multiplying effect. Warm, warm eyes and smile. Even if he was faking it… he sure fooled me. He asked me where I was heading, and we made small talk. I told him, I’m off for a quick bite on my own, and then probably something nerdy like a book store or a comic book store. He said that I’m more than welcome to join him at some dinner that he got invited to, but that we would probably both be bored. We both half-laughed. Just casual chit chat for another block or so before shaking hands and that was that. My minor and personal interaction with Robin Williams.
It wasn’t a night to remember.
I’m going to sound like a wank now, but I have lived a charmed life. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, having conversations and hanging out with all kinds of celebrities. From musicians to actors to athletes to entertainers. Some celebrities just know how to interact with the public, be human and not act like self-loving jerks. Upon reflection, Robin Williams was just like the other generous and grateful celebrities. The next day, during a break from the TED Talks, I was standing in the hallway speaking to someone when they leaned in and said, "hey, check it out… it’s Robin Williams… he’s right over there!" I looked over and he saw me. He waved, nodded and smiled and said, "Hey, what’s doing today, Chief did you pick up any good books last night?" I told him that I was enjoying the day. As he walked away, the person I was speaking to asked if we were friends or not. I said, "no, I just met him last night for the first time.." He looked me over and said, "funny, he was acting like you were guys were friends and had known each other a long time."
That’s what the best celebrities do best.
They make you feel like you know them. Like you have been friends forever. Like you’re related. Like if you could hang out, you would be best friends. For real. Some would say that these entertainers are just doing what they do best: putting on a performance. Like I said, I’ve met a lot of entertainers over the years and I’ve seen some pretty nefarious creatures. The real ones are the real ones. That means that they’re human… and frail.
On this day, that’s the story of Robin Williams that I choose to remember.