I have been very fortunate to get several speaking gigs this year. Speaking is something that I have been looking to do more of, and I seem to have hit on talks that people are interested in. If this is something that you are looking to do, I am going to share the inside scoop on what it is really like.
The “glamorous” life of a speaker goes something more like this:
I had to drive to Madison, WI, which from Chicago takes about three hours. No big deal. I am calm and relaxed. I am speaking for a small group and they are really excited that I am making the trip. I decide that I’ll leave a lot of extra time to grab some lunch on the road and relax in the hotel before my talk. I get some gas and because I am going on a longer drive, I check the oil. The plastic around the dipstick breaks and I can’t get a good reading and then, I see a big puddle of oil on the engine. So, I look at the hose that is dripping and I jiggle it. The hose has a big hole.
I don’t know much about cars, but I figure that this isn’t good and I shouldn’t drive to Madison like this. I wonder if I can drive the car the ¾ mile to my mechanic. I decide to give it a shot.
Oil all over my hands, I get to their location and pop the hood. My mechanic, Sean, is surprised to see me (I usually call first) and comes over to take a look as he hears panic in my voice. He says that the hose is broken, which I could see. How dangerous is it? Can I drive to Madison or do I need to rent a car? I ask if we can just do something quick like tape it and he says he will try to do something. Then, as he is fiddling with it, the hose breaks completely in half – definitely not good.
I start to get a little nervous. I see my cushion of time fading away. Quick fixes aren’t really a possibility now. We need a new hose. My car is old so they don’t have the part. I explain that I am doing a talk and that I HAVE to be in Madison by 6:00 PM.
The rest is a bit of a blur as I am borderline hysterical from low blood sugar because I was planning to eat on the road. And I am wondering if I should be getting a cheap rental car on Hotwire. I listen to the owner of the shop, Paul, on the phone telling the parts place to messenger the part over, get the guy back from lunch, this is an emergency! I feel very important. “The part will be here in 15 minutes,” Paul says confidently. I am skeptical.
Then, Paul starts telling me about escaping from Czechoslovakia when he was 17 by hanging onto the axels of freight trains and the fear of going through checkpoints with Russian soldiers and lots of guns. Normally, this would have been a riveting story, but I was in full-on freak-out and wondered why he chose now (after 12 years of being a customer) to tell me this story. It was surreal.
Time goes by. Paul calls the parts place again. The messenger is on his way. Is that like the check’s in the mail? Or will he actually be here soon?
They pull my car into the bay so that as soon as the guy comes, they can put the hose on and get me out of there. It felt like a NASCAR pit stop with the crew waiting for the car to come in.
Meanwhile, I am making good use of the waiting time by putting my makeup on in the bathroom, which looks exactly like what you think it would. I am doing this so if I hit construction traffic, I can change shirts in my car and just go in to do the talk.
I am taking deep breaths, walking around, mumbling to myself and checking my phone for the time. Sean and Paul are making fun of me and telling me that I have plenty of time. The messenger shows up, there’s the handoff of the part, and I am back in business in three minutes. I ask how much I owe and they tell me to get out of there and to pay them when I get back into town. I say thank you and I am gone.
As I am racing to the highway, I am wondering if I am going to black out from hunger. I need to get out of Chicago quickly or the highways will back up, so I am zooming north up I 90 and aiming to stop at the first rest stop on the tollway. It’s McDonald’s eaten in the car and pedal to the metal time – but I didn’t buy enough food and am still really hungry when I am finished. I get to the hotel by 5:30 and hope to find some food, sit down, and relax. No such luck.
I try to check in, but my reservation is messed up and I have to call the organizer. 10 minutes on the phone gets it fixed and I am racing into the restaurant begging for anything that I can just take up to the room, and a big cup of coffee. Somehow, juggling my laptop bag, suitcase, coffee, and plate in and out of the elevator, I am now stuffing spicy fries by the fistful into my mouth and washing them down with black coffee, as I dash around the hotel room getting ready. I have exactly eight minutes before I have to meet the organizer. It’s at this point that I just start to laugh. The glamorous life of a speaker? My ass!
But, I am fine. I am calm, chatty, and poised when the organizer picks me up. Why? Because nothing is worse than a bloody demo, and having survived those, any other presentation is a piece of cake.
FYI, the talk went really well. People even stayed after to talk about takeaways.
I hear from my colleagues who do a lot of speaking that something going wrong is more the rule than the exception. So, my advice is to expect the unexpected and if everything goes well – bonus! Put your feet up and relax. But don’t count it.
Do you have some speaking disaster stories to share? I would love to hear about them in the comments below.
Catherine great story! Having done that drive between Madison and Chicago myself, I know it can get really bad if you hit traffic wrong. Kudos to pulling it off.
My worst experience was actually for my own business. I had planned to have my book launch cocktail party live stream on the internet so I could include people from all over. Three hours before we are supposed to go live I get this email saying my service was suspended. WHAT? I call support and they can't find the problem. 1:15 minutes before the start they call and say we think we've fixed it. THINK? So I set up my cool bloggy camera with extra long cord and it keeps blacking out on the stream. In the end @Taigoodwin had to use the crappy built in webcam on my laptop. It was Blair Witch meets The Apprentice.
Great post! Here's my "worst" story, from back in corporate life. My company sends me to train in Germany. I get picked up at 10:30 AM in Stuttgart for a 2 PM talk in Munich. We arrive an hour late after driving 100 MPH on the autobahn. No one there. Why? "Sir, the materials never arrived from America." No problem, I say, I can photocopy my set. "Sorry, the copier is broken." OK, so where is everyone? "They are all off having a bier ..."
The materials did arrive the next day and we were off to the races. But I still smile about my first international speaking gig. Thanks Catherine!
Great story, Catherine, I simply had to read all the way through, and just like you, you pulled it off beautifully! I wish that I were there to see you. Now, to your question re your reader's speaking stories, I will tell you my best: I was about 31 years old, living in Colorado, and got an engagement to do a slide travelogue in New York, about my round-the-world trip that took me from the heartlands of Irian Jaya (reached by hercules transport) to the Karakorum mountains (in Pakistan). Since I know a picture is worth a thousand words, I carefully culled thousands of slides into a one hour presentation, and due to a train-wreck of snafus, boarded a flight from Denver with my "hub," enroute to NYC. However, he didn't have the slides, I didn't have the slides, there was no way to go back and get the slides from the "drop-off" place... and it had to be a very zen-like slide travelogue. Needless to say, I was profuse with apologies, and the crowd was forgiving, but I hope never to have to re-live that one!
My 1982 'nightmare' story taught me I HAVE to research my audience. I had several Dutch exchange-student friends getting an MBA at Wharton with me. So when we graduated and I accepted a job with Godiva in Brussels, they invited me to speak to their Dutch MBA program's second-year students. I got too busy to prepare, so started winging it in my head as I drove north to Holland. I decided to talk about the importance of corporate culture when choosing what job offer to accept. (I myself had ignored that, to my chagrin, and would be sharing my lesson.) Well, it turns out there were virtually only two viable employers in Holland (Philips and Shell) for MBAs and the students HAD no real choice. And they sure let me know it ... knowing full well I had not done my research. I was horrified! I had disrespected my audience ... lesson learned, the hard way!
CathyPresland That's the whole thing though, Cathy! Once I was physically in Madison, I found the whole thing hysterical. The organizer couldn't believe how calm I was when I told her what had happened. On my own blog I told the "bloody demo" story and truly nothing will ever be as bad as that.