By Mike Walter
There was a very popular ad campaign for Dry Idea when I was a kid. If you’re my age or older you probably remember it. It featured a number of people from various professions talking about the “nevers” in their career and they always ended with: “never let ‘em see you sweat.” One, for example, was a stand-up comic who said the nevers in comedy were, “never follow a better comedian, never give a heckler the last word and, no matter how bad a joke bombs, never let ‘em see you sweat.” I grew up with that as a mantra and it’s stuck with me to this day.
I thought about that message twice in the same day recently. Alex Trebek, he of Jeopardy fame, made a video to get the word out that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Trebek, who any public speaker has to admire for his polish, professionalism, and incredible pronunciation skills, produced a video that is equal parts uplifting and humorous. He declares that he believes he will beat cancer, finishing with the idea that he has to, because he still has three years left on his contract. It reminded me of the old Henny Youngman line about his doctor giving him six months to live but when he couldn’t pay his medical bill he gave him six more months (ba dum bum). Trebek, no doubt, is reeling inside from the news. At 78, he should have many years in front of him, but who knows now. Pancreatic cancer is a tough one. But instead of looking scared or forlorn, the video shows him focused and determined. He is the quintessential professional, as he’s been his entire career, and no matter what deodorant he uses (do they even make Dry Idea anymore?) he has channeled that decades-old ad campaign.
The same day Trebek made his announcement, R Kelly was interviewed on CBS by Gayle King. The interview didn’t reveal anything new (Kelly vehemently denies the allegations that are so thoroughly laid out in the documentary Surviving R Kelly) but the interview made news for King’s grace under pressure. Indeed, there is one image (that became an instant meme) of Kelly standing up and screaming while King sits in her chair calmly, not even looking at him. If you look up “grace under pressure,” you should see that picture.
How does one maintain such poise? How does someone faced with the worse possible diagnosis make a video that is so uplifting?
Surely, experience is a factor. It’s doubtful that Trebek or King could have been so controlled in their first few years of broadcasting. Preparation has something to do with it as well. We don’t know how long Trebek prepared for his video. He might have taken days to get all the sobbing out before he hit record. And, no doubt, King knew that Kelly may explode when confronted with the disgusting allegations from the documentary, so she was ready for it.
However they did it, as a fellow public speaker, I admired both moments. Things happen at my events that pale in comparison to what Trebek and King were dealing with, yet I often get flustered. I often react one way and then moments later think of a better way to handle things. How can I channel both of these professionals the next time I’m faced with something like a wedding cake toppling over or two bridesmaids getting into a fight on the dance floor? I want to be as polished and smooth and I believe that awareness is a big factor. Knowing how high the bar is set helps one jump higher.
I was in my teens when I first heard the catch phrase: “Never let ‘em see you sweat.” It comes up often in any performance job because things happen spontaneously. We can only hope to handle them as well as Alex Trebek and Gayle King did on that same day in early March of 2019. We should set our sights at being as unflappable as they both appeared, hopefully we can get close to it. That’s my goal anyway.