Thursday, May 14, 2009

when the speech hands you lemons...

I’m always coaching speakers to plan ahead, then be ready for anything on the ground. That's two different mindsets: One to get ready, rehearsing for the ideal; two, to toss that out the window and take what the situation brings. And I got a big taste of that last night in a talk I gave in New York City.

I arrived and learned that the room booked for the event was under construction, a fact omitted from all the booking conversations the organizers had had. (They'd in fact learned of it just within the hour.) The only available space was essentially a storefront space in the same building, nearly too small for the group, with tables and chairs packed in tight rows, and windows to the street so any passerby could watch us, if they cared to. Forget great lighting, and think street noise. Unlike the original space, this room also lacked a lectern, microphone, or projection. (Yes, I had slides.) Everything had to be rigged, from setting up refreshments to registering attendees. We'd planned to videotape the presentation, which involved putting a lavalier mic with a very long cord on me and putting the videographer in one of the storefront window bays. Electrical outlets were at a premium, and so was space at the front of the room. At one point, I thought I might have to stand in front of my slides. There’d been just enough notice of the room change that an organizer was able to bring a projector from his office, and it wasn’t quite compatible with my laptop—what were the odds of that happening?--so we had to prop up the cord to make sure the connection with the computer didn’t fail. One good jostle would’ve killed the slides, we feared. And, given the few electrical outlets, I had three kinds of cords at my feet, perfect for tripping over. (Yes, I was wearing high heels.)

And here’s what happened: What sounds like a speaking disaster turned out to be a great speaking experience, for me and for the audience. Turns out that getting a taste of “be ready for anything” last night was more like lemonade than lemons to me. In fact, I’m still smiling about it, and getting lots of compliments and good feedback from the audience and the organizers.

How’d that happen? Here’s the speaker’s take:
The organizers chose a timely topic and knew their audience was motivated: Many in the audience were worried about or affected by shifting employment conditions, or work independently and want to ramp up their marketing. Many, too, are adjusting to using social media as a networking and marketing tool, so they had lots of questions. That’s a powerful impetus to stay the course, even in a too-tight space. I’d have to say this audience was one of my most attentive, for which I take absolutely no credit—they had reason to want to hear the information, and the organizers knew that when they approached me with the topic.
The audience brought it. And by “it,” I mean questions. Yes, this is a group of writers and reporters and folks who aren’t shy about asking people things in public settings. (One of the organizers nicely asked whether I’d allow questions during my presentation, and my reaction was, “Of course. How would we stop them?”) They had challenging questions for me, and no amount of jerry-rigged wiring was going to stop that from happening.
The organizers are great team--and great turnaround artists. This group’s a close-knit network, and it showed last night. Several board members split up the tasks at hand and pitched in to figure out solutions, including bringing a projector and figuring out how to handle the patchwork of audio-visual equipment. As a speaker, if I’m going to run into problems, this is the group I want at my back.
I take my own advice and prepare: I knew my material, and had developed a brief message—four points on which they could focus—that served as my outline. If push came to shove, I could speak without the slides. The message meant I wasn’t using a script, so who needed a lectern, anyway?

In Washington, I hang with a lot of professionals who are frequent speakers, meeting planners and event-throwers, and it’s common for folks to leave events like this one running down everything that went wrong and tsk-tsking about it. In this case, no one had the time or inclination to do that, least of all me. Participants hung around to ask questions and help with putting the room to rights, and the organizers took me out for a convivial dinner. People were calm, nice, flexible and willing to make it work—as opposed to panicky, complaining, regretful or anxious. And that’s what made this a sweet, not sour, experience for me.

The group—Science Writers in New York—plans to upload video of the presentation soon, and I’ll update this post when they do so you can see how we did under, er, adaptive conditions. Speakers, if they call you, accept the invitation. I'm especially grateful to the SWINY board members who came up with the topic, invited me, gathered a great crowd and made me feel at ease and at home.