It is a well-worn cliché that more people are frightened of public speaking than of heights, spiders or global warming. Studies continue to reveal this, though you would think that there are far more scary things about which to be phobic these days.
As a compulsive public prattler, I have never understood this particular fear. Until now. These days, it’s not the audiences that make my hands go clammy, my stomach tighten and my throat dry—it’s the organisers.
There used to be an adage in the army: "There are no bad soldiers, only bad officers." I am beginning to wonder if that platitude doesn’t echo in the meeting industry: "There are no bad speakers, only bad planners." It could be argued that any meeting organiser who allows a poor presenter to take the podium isn’t doing his or her job or, if an experienced speaker fails to hold the audience, either they are a bad choice (planner to blame) or they have been insufficiently briefed (planner to blame).
We have all heard the horror stories about after-dinner speakers alcoherent from incohol; of comedians who were racist, sexist or just too Joan Rivers-ist; of presenters who patronised or lecturers who hectored. But is it really fair to blame them? Perhaps we should be rubbishing the reputations of their erstwhile employers.
Because I do it more for fun than money, I am still in the junior league where public speaking is concerned, but after some 200 gigs in the last few years, I am an expert on how not to host a visiting speaker.
So, planners, here’s how to ensure that your guest speaker gives a dreadful performance.
Don’t bother to ask speakers for any background details such as previous engagements, personal biographies or how to pronounce their names.
Assume that they have heard of your organisation and know what it does.
Neglect to ask them about fees or expenses so that everyone can be embarrassed afterwards.
Presume that speakers will use the same audiovisual aids as everyone else.
As speakers are not on any delegate list, omit to send them administrative instructions.
Let speakers guess how many people may attend their sessions and who these attendees are. (His faux pas will be so much more entertaining.)
When they arrive at the venue, reveal that they are a top-table guest at the black-tie dinner ("don’t worry, a lounge suit will do").
Let them discover that all presenters are being evaluated.
Assume that professional presenters don’t need rehearsals.
Change the sessions around at the last minute (this cleverly puts their adrenalin into contraflow).
Ignore speakers until 10 minutes before their appearance, then bombard them with lots of instructions.
Surprise speakers with clever (preferably inaccurate) introductions. (I was once introduced at a bankers’ dinner as follows: "And now to entertain us, here is Tony Carey." Unfortunately no one told me I was the entertainment.)
Just before they go on stage, tell your speakers that the media are present.
Let speakers discover that they are appearing immediately following the president of the United States or Oprah Winfrey.
I have suffered most of these treatments from so-called professional organisers over the years, but etched into my memory is a conference in Hawaii where I was scheduled to run a 90-minute seminar after lunch on the first day. Seventy-five people had registered for my session, so the adrenalin counterbalanced 12 time zones worth of jetlag. Three quarters of an hour late, 23 jaded delegates chose my seminar instead of a post-prandial snooze on the adjacent, palm-fringed beach. I could have hugged them. Never have I had to present against such competition—nor condense my material so drastically. It was not the performance of a lifetime.
But there’s no such thing as a free trip to Maui, so I’m not complaining—just dining out on the experience.
Planners, I contend, get the performances they deserve because speakers, unless they are VIPs, are too often under-briefed and under-hosted.
It is, for example, difficult to give a virtuoso performance when your introduction goes like this: "...but first, before we relax and enjoy ourselves, here is Tommy Caney to say a few words."
TONY CAREY, CMP, CMM, is an award-winning writer and past member of the MPI International Board of Directors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.tonycarey.info.
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