The cost of overpreparing and the price of presence

That’s odd, I thought staring at my trusty dictaphone. I didn’t know it had a light. A flashing red one too.

Odd. I could’ve sworn I hit record when interviewing my client’s client for this juicy story of triumph over adversity.

Why aren’t there any audio files after three months ago…?

Shit. This isn’t good. Where’s my magnificent latest interview? The one I really, really need to write up for my client.

Cue terror. 

Like a trap door to the guts. Like travelling over a humped bridge at speed. Or a shit rollercoaster. 

I feel the earth fall away beneath me. 

One horrible day in the life of an over-preparer

When life went according to plan, in a former life as a case study copywriter guy, I’d sketch out a mindmap of topics to ask about, mic up my phone, then capture some bigwig CEO/MD of a faceless corporation’s tall tale of endeavour. 

I’d listen, interrogate, and focus entirely on the conversation, safe in the knowledge that my trusty recording apparatus had my back. 

When it didn’t, well, as you can see: my arse dropped out.

The origin of presence

In the before-times, long before treacherous recorders, I’d jot notes in hybrid shorthand, frantically trying to keep pace with whatever revelations my interviewee divulged. Yet I soon found my attention drawn disproportionately to keeping a meaningful record of the interview, at the expense of actually holding one. 

Thus I came to value the notion of presence: actually being there in the moment with someone, listening for vocal cues, and crafting questions on the fly. This made for far more engaging written articles, based on a livelier, more human interview. 

Both my interviewee and I enjoyed the experience more too. I could provoke and tempt emotions out of people (usually men) who made a living from repressing them in the face of challenges.

For the bargain price of just 40 quid, my trusty dictaphone bought me presence. 

And I don’t use the word trusty lightly either. 

I did invest trust in it. It set me free to be a bit more me.

Then came the fateful time my dictaphone zombified

The tiny electronic charlatan said it was recording, when really it wasn’t. Worse still, it’d kept up this pretence for months without me knowing. 

Without any notes I’d lost the bones of a story. Stories.

I’d have to do the interview(s) all over again in a vain attempt to recapture that lost magic. 

Unprofessional. Incompetent. And other value judgements ensued.

The extent of hyper-preparation 

You’ll be relieved to hear all was not lost. 

Because some of us, those of you who think like me, are so hard-coded for failure as an inevitability, we build contingencies for our contingencies. Even with a dictaphone, it turns out I’d still hit record on my smartphone’s voice recorder app. 

Almost habitually, unknowingly. 

It was genuinely a surprise to discover that.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Did I ever really trust myself? Was I ever really, fully present at the time of recording, if my mind was on contingency and preparation? 

You could chase that thought even further. With multiple layers of protection like this, you have to wonder what are we really protecting ourselves from? 

Something tells me it’s to do with exposure and vulnerability – being revealed as a less-than-perfect human being, and handling the emotional fallout of, eurgh, failure.

And what would the real cost of failure be? The temporary discomfort of re-recording an interview? A shame-faced admission to a client, who in all likelihood would’ve felt my pain. 

Who knows.

Preparation – a way of life?

So there it was. Crackly mono, compressed and whispery, but I had a backup of my backup. The interview was saved. I could work with crap. Crap is better than no crap.

Now, you might think the moral of the story is preparation pays. “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” goes the wanky business idiom.

I wish it were that simple.

It isn’t.

Preparation runs deeper than that, I suspect. It’s a way of life. It sets a precedent, an expectation, an intention to be hesitant, cautious and restrained. A subtle anxiety, that nibbles away at presence, playfulness and flow state – all crucial ingredients for a delightful conversation or interview. 

Or anything joyful and creative too, I suspect.

I wonder. Is there a link between presence, preparation and that kind of authentic, vulnerable state we need to be in to get the best out of ourselves, and the people we’re with?

Could preparation be fear of vulnerability, and presence a way to embrace it?

Let me tell you one last story about preparation

Recently, I’ve been recording a series of interviews with intriguing people, all about their personal philosophies and how they relate to uncertainty, the future and change. I call it the pessimist’s guide to a hopeful future (episodes launch in April 2021, probably).

Despite recording each conversation with every available instrument I have (zoom, dictaphone, smartphone, wax cylinder, mynah bird etc.), the preparer in me still worries about losing something – be it the recording, some wisdom, magic, or a perfect question.

The preparer in me is an inveterate note-taker too. I frantically scribble things down, just in case I forget. Never trust your memory or yourself. It’s another expectation or intention, which on occasion almost encourages my mind to let slip the thread of conversation.

Could it be that preparedness, a kind of control, is at war with presence? Presence says let go of control and sit with things as they are. Preparedness says keep checking for a red light.

We’re approaching the wisdom bit

When gatherings were a thing, my friends at Glug Leeds had me over to talk about being a freelancer in the creative industry. That copywriter thing again. I’ve spoken at a few of their events, always heavily scripting and rehearsing myself, for all but one.

Here’s the interesting thing – my most recent, least scripted talk felt funnier, freer, and more meaningful (at least to me).

Now I’m not saying preparation is bad or good either way, or how much is appropriate. I suppose the subtext here is perhaps it can get the better of us, at the expense of presence?

Is there such a thing as being over-present?

Presence feels like a more fun way to do things, but that alone at the exclusion of doing your homework (preparation) can come at a cost too. It can make you look like an amateur, like you don’t take something seriously. It’d never have washed with those CEOs and MDs I used to interview.

On one memorable occasion I deliberately did little preparation (as an experiment) for an open-mic stand-up comedy gig, and got to a point of such supreme not-giving-a-fuckness that I recall getting up on stage and completely losing it, muttering “so… grandad died” on a loop, unable to recall any of my routines about coal mining and masculinity. 

The audience yelled encouragement and felt my pain, but it was too late. I’d already transcended corporeal form, floating several feet above I witnessed myself dying on stage.

I was acutely present, kind of, yet it felt dissociative, like a bad trip.

Questions for preppers

I don’t have the answers here. Perhaps preparedness or presence isn’t a binary choice? Maybe our capacity for both is innate? Could some lean towards one over the other, habitually? Could they even coexist?

Perhaps there comes a point (and maybe I’m reaching it) where decades of perpetual preparedness now qualify me as perpetually prepared, so there’s credit on account that I can invest in presence. 

Is this what enlightenment feels like?

Time to throw this over to you, because I’m a coach and that’s what nerks like me do. 

Have I prepared these provocative questions beforehand? See if you can tell… I’m certainly very present in writing them:

  • What’s your habitual state – present or prepared? At what cost?
  • If these states coexist, how do you float along the spectrum when you have an upcoming event or deadline?
  • Have you ever been totally present yet totally unprepared (or vice versa) – what happened? What came of it?
  • How would you like to be, in an ideal world, when the stakes are high?
  • What’s one tiny step you might take, right now, to get closer to that?

Photo credit: “Moleskine iPod Dictaphone” by topgold






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