February 24, 2014

I was about to meet Superman. And, I had no idea what to say. You don’t want to mess with Superman!

To be clear, I was the moderator for a speaker series at George Mason University and Christopher Reeve was our guest this month. This was not long after the 1995 equestrian accident that rendered him a quadriplegic.

Although I had become comfortable as the moderator for this series for some time and had the honor of speaking with greats like Katie Couric and Maya Angelou, I was nervous this time like no other. Reeve was on a ventilator and I was so worried that when he paused for a breath, I would assume he was finished with that statement. I was concerned about interrupting him, cutting him off, frustrating him or, worst of all, offending him.

And to add stress to the pressure, there were 4,000 attendees, 200 of our best customers and a ton of media coming to hear him speak. I was fraught with anxiety and peppering his aide with questions to learn how to best handle my dialogue with him. I kept asking questions such as “How will I know when he is ready for the next question?” “Is there a signal he can give me to let me know he is finished with his answer?” and “Will I know when he is ready to wrap things up?”

With great patience, Reeve’s assistant answered all my questions. When it was clear that I was not gaining confidence that all would go well, he said, “Nancy, he’s been an actor his entire life. He will own the stage.” And with that came a great realization and huge sigh of relief.

This wasn’t about me. This was about Reeve and he was an expert at being on stage and in front of crowds. All I had to do was ask the right questions and let him do the thing he was good at. I was good at asking the questions… I knew how to uncover someone’s success and their passion through my questions. I didn’t need to be good at figuring out how or when he was going to answer – I needed to let him be good at what he does and stay out of the way.

I was delighted with the candid comment I received from Reeve’s assistant. He could have continued to answer my anxiety-provoked questions, probably rolling his eyes backstage later and telling others of my consistent concerns. Instead, he honored me with a direct, truthful, riveting comment. I was dishonoring Reeve by taking all the responsibility for how this event would go. He was the guest of honor and I had lost that focus. It was like a splash of cold water – instantly reminding me of my role and the capabilities of Reeve.

As his assistant predicted, Reeve owned the house.