Sunday, March 15, 2009

speaker on ice: when you need to wing it

If you hang around long enough, someday, someone will come up to you and say, "The speaker just let us know she's sick and won't be coming. Can you fill in?" These aren't words you dread so much as simply fail to expect. If your plans were to be a happy audience member that day, those words bring an end to your vision for carefree luncheon, dinner or event.

This happened to me a few years ago on the day of the annual Washington Women in Public Relations "PR Woman of the Year" award luncheon. I'd won the award the year before, and I'd been asked to present the award to this year's winner. This is a plum assignment, and doesn't require saying much more than, "...and the winner is." And I was already speaking that day, on a panel discussion in the morning. But as our panel left the podium, one of my assistants came rushing up with a cell phone. "They want you to fill in--the keynote speaker is sick."

I had a cab ride and a half-hour of reception time to mull remarks and adjust to the new luncheon scenario. For someone whose personality type likes to plan ahead, this is not fun. My colleague Kate came by and suggested--given the group's focus on women in public relations--"was there any time in your career where being a woman in PR was significant to your success?" Normally, I'd have said no--but then it came to me. I had one example, just one, and a risky one, because it involved talking about a surgical procedure used to ease childbirth for women. At a luncheon speech. I'm just saying. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I used the luncheon opening talks to mull my hasty remarks. And then I was called forward. Let me break it down for you as I now see it in hindsight, and in the form of tips, while I share the story with you:

  • I started by taking a poll of the audience. In this case, I knew I was going to talk about childbirth at a luncheon, so I wanted to edge into the topic. "Let me ask you a few questions before I begin. How many of you are married? How many are single? How many have children? How many have grandchildren? How many don't have children?" In a room filled primarily with women, but also with men, this allowed me to check my assumptions about who'd understand the story I was about to tell.
  • I took the real-life situation of the day and put it into my talk. "I was struggling to come up with what to talk to you about, when Kate asked me whether there was a time when being a woman made a difference in my ability to do public relations well. I like to think it doesn't make a difference, but there was just one time when it did, so let me share that."
  • I explained where I came out on the poll so the audience understood my perspective."I asked you whether you had children. I don't, but early in my journalism career, I edited a magazine for new parents. I wanted to see how many of you might be familiar with a surgical procedure, an episiotomy, because it's part of my story." That got a buzz of reaction, so I could tell I had, shall we say, an informed audience.
  • Given my risky topic, I made sure they knew I wouldn't talk about the procedure much. People were eating lunch, after all. "This is a luncheon, so I'm not going to go into the details. But it's important to know that episiotomies are among the most-frequently recommended surgical procedures for women in childbirth, because--as the doctors tell their patients--they make childbirth easier. But they are also painful and add to your recovery time. At the magazine I edited, the topic of episiotomies always drew lots of reader reaction. Ladies, am I right?" Heads were nodding. Here I knew the odds were high they'd agree. People were giggling, and I learned at this point I could have a little fun with this.
  • I brought it back to our shared topic, women and public relations. "So fast forward in my career. I'd moved to public relations and was working for a major scientific journal, and the organization decided to launch a second journal, only about clinical trials. They're popular with the media, as they offer the chance to learn about new treatments for all sorts of diseases and conditions. We had several important reporters eager to see the first studies coming out from the new journal. And, because of my own earlier work in journalism, I was excited to see that the first major study we would publish was about...episiotomies."
  • I shared data and drama. "I was excited because millions of women give birth every year in the U.S., so childbirth issues clearly impact a lot of people--not just mothers, but the families around them. And this study had a surprising conclusion. I knew episiotomies were widely prescribed and done at that time. So imagine how I reacted when I learned that the procedure had never been comprehensively studied before. What's more, the study we were about to publish had all the right conditions--a large sample size, a 10-year scope, irrefutable findings--and found that, all things being equal, an episiotomy makes little to no difference in ensuring an easier delivery."
  • I pulled the story back to the PR focus. The room was buzzing with surprise, and I used that to push forward. "I've done a lot of work communicating scientific topics and this one had all the hallmarks of a good story. I had a wire-service reporter eager to see the first of our published studies. Now, I have to say that I don't tend to hover over reporters considering stories--I like them to stand on their merits. So I don't call to ask whether they received the information, and this reporter typically would call me right back if he was interested. But he didn't call. Five minutes, 10 minutes went by. So I picked up the phone and said "Whaddaya think?" And he said, "Honestly, I just didn't think this was all that important." At this point, whether you had children or did public relations, I'd put forward something for everyone. You could be horrified about the research or about the reporter's reaction, or both.
  • I brought it full circle for a big finish. "I tried explaining the merits again, but he wasn't buying it. So I said, 'Fred, I seem to recall you and your wife have kids, am I right? Do me a favor and call her, tell her about the research in your own words. Don't go by what I'm telling you. And then if you have any women in that newsroom, gather an odd number of them and tell them the same thing. You want to do the story or not, fine with me. But just call me when you've done that--I'm curious to hear what they say.' Five minutes later, he called and said, "I'll do the story--just make them stop yelling at me!" At this point, the room erupted in laughter and applause--the real reward for a story with a beginning, middle and end.
  • As I look back on it, starting with an audience poll and concluding with the reporter doing a poll of his own added a nice symmetry to the talk...but I can't honestly say that was aforethought. I was delighted to turn then to announcing my successor, the day's winner. What did I learn that would really help you when you're tapped to speak at the last minute?
    • When backed into a speaking corner, stick with the familiar. I'd told that story many times in smaller settings, so I knew it by heart--and knew it got good reactions. I didn't have time to write notes, and didn't need them, because I knew my own story.
    • I knew the audience would be willing to cut me some slack. As a member, a former award winner and a recognized speaker in the group, I had some advantages, but none greater than the sympathy folks have for the recently-pressed-into-service speaker.
    • I didn't try to replicate the talk I was replacing. No way, no how. In fact, I erred on the side of short, funny and informal.
    • I spoke only to my own experience. I'm not a parent, but I had relevant experience in my professions around the topic and focused on them.
    • I stuck to topics that mirrored the event, women and public relations, and that focus helped me be brief, relevant and cogent.

    That worked for me. What's worked for you when you've had to speak with little to no preparation time? Share your story in the comments.

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