Embrace the Mess: Lessons in Public Speaking From My Cat

Eleni Kelakos Peak Performance, presentation skills training, public speaking training

When it comes to giving presentations, my coaching clients all want the same thing: A stress-free, problem free, perfectly executed result. To which I say, “good luck with that.” Because, as you may have noticed, plans and expectation often have a way of going awry. Life is messy, and sometimes giving presentations is too. Which, as I have learned over many years of delivering and observing countless presentations and performances, is perfectly normal and perfectly fine.

I recently got a great reminder about the value of embracing the mess and going with what you’re given from an unexpected source: My little grey cat, Cicely.

Like me, Cicely has allergy-induced asthma. As she’s gotten older, her asthma has gotten worse, to the point that she has had bouts of gasping, coughing, and wheezing. And so, our veterinarian recently gave us a prescription for a long-term asthma inhaler, with instructions to go online and buy a delivery aid called a spacer. The spacer, which has a soft, clear rubber cup at one end (for the kitty snout), and an indentation on the other (into which you slide the inhaler) is designed to manage the delivery of the medication mist that blasts out from the inhaler. This makes inhaling the medicine easier (and less startling) for cats (and humans—I use one, too).

The vet also emailed me a link to an instructional video on “how to train your cat to use an Asthma inhaler and spacer” (translation: how to slap a cone over your cat’s nose and mouth and blast her with medicine without scaring the bejeezus out of her). “I’ve never actually used an asthma inhaler on a cat myself,” the vet wrote, “but I’m sure if you watch this video you’ll train Cicely to do it in no time!”

This Is How You Do It. Really?

Despite my skepticism (Train Cicely? I mean she’s a cat, for Pete’s sake! Cats train humans, not the other way around!), I clicked on the link and settled back to watch and learn. A perfectly put-together, relaxed and smiling professional animal trainer calmly demonstrated the training steps with her equally calm and put-together cat: First, she put a kitty treat in a medium sized bowl and held it sideways. The cat in the video ambled over, poked its head into the bowl in a most agreeable manner, and retrieved the treat. Then, over time, the trainer repeated the process, using smaller and smaller bowls. The cat in the video obligingly put its little muzzle into each of the increasingly smaller bowls, mellow as can be. Finally, the trainer grabbed the clear rubber bowl-like end from the spacer, laid a treat in it and held it up to the cat’s nose. The cat very delicately poked its snout into the little rubber bowl (just like the cat in the photo above) and nibbled the treat. “Now your cat is ready for the inhaler,” the trainer declared. And just like that, easy as you please, her kitty thrust its snout delicately into the little spacer cup. And, as it did, the trainer pressed the inhaler, giving said kitty a whooshing dose of asthma medication. The cat blinked a couple of times, and that was it. No screeching, clawing or pouting. It was quite an impressive demonstration.

Turning off the video, I was certain of three things:

1.The trainer and her cat were champions in the asthma inhaler training and delivery department.

2.There was no way in Hell that my cat–a squirmy little gal who refuses to sit in my lap and only lies still when she’s got four legs in the air and her belly’s being rubbed–was going to patiently tolerate a training regimen that involved sticking her head in a succession of bowls. Not for a kitty treat, not even for a whole chicken leg.

3. Even if I got the spacer cup over Cicely’s nose, the chances of her calmly standing there while I slowly counted the 5-7 inhalations and exhalations needed to dose her properly was slim to none. I mean, seriously?

Nevertheless, I gave it the old college try.

OK. My Turn Now. Grab the Bandaids.

Sure enough, when presented with a cereal bowl turned sideways holding a tasty treat, Cicely gave me the kind of scoffing, “I don’t think so” look cats have perfected through the ages and marched resolutely in the other direction. After a few, similarly futile attempts I finally cut to the chase by presenting her with the inhaler already attached to the spacer. “Look,” I said, “it’s a new toy!” I laid it gently on the duvet of the king bed where she generously allows my husband and to sleep at night. She gave it one, big skeptical sniff, flattened her ears, and hightailed under the bed.

After a day or two of wasted effort in playing “meet your new inhaler friend,” I finally did what I suspected I’d have to do all along: I snuck up behind Cicely when she wasn’t looking, locked her between my legs, plopped the inhaler cup over her startled little face, and pressed the inhaler release button. At roughly the same moment, she twisted her head away, raked my tender inner thighs with her sharp little claws and leaped yet again under the bed. Did the little mist of medicine ever reach her nose? I have no clue. I was, however, triumphant. The deed had been done, to the best of my abilities.

Cicely and I have been dancing the asthma medication inhaler dance twice a day for over a month now. Some days, I’m able to hold it onto her face for as long as it takes for her to properly inhale the medication. Other days, I’m lucky if I can grab Cicely and slide the inhaler over her snout for the merest of moments before she squirms out of my grasp and heads for the hills. The more we play the inhaler game, the less traumatic is it (for the both of us). And since her asthma symptoms seem to have receded, I figure some of that medication is going where it’s supposed to go, in spite of Cicely’s dedicated efforts to thwart me.

Do Your Best. Embrace the Mess.

Cicely and I will never be asked to make a training video on how to give a cat asthma medicine. But that’s ok by me. Because every one of the chaotic and messy kitty inhaler moments I experience with Cicely is a reminder of something I am continuously telling my public speaking training clients: Sometimes, even when you have the best intentions, follow all the rules, and prepare up the wazoo, your presentation (or circumstances around it) will go to hell in a handbasket. And all you can do is the best you can you do. Which, frankly, is more than good enough.

In public speaking, as in kitty medicine delivery, there is no “perfect.” There simply is making the best of what you’ve been given in the moment and being perfectly ok with it. You’ve got to be willing to embrace the mess. And if it means having to put a little hydrogen peroxide on your inner thighs, well, so be it: At least you’ve given it your best shot, and can live another day to give another presentation or administer another blast of asthma medication to a crafty, cunning, recalcitrant kitty.