Last week, Sylva Ifedigbo shared a personal challenge he has with public speaking and offered some hints on how he is working to overcome it. His story brought back a memory to me which I want to share with you.
Years ago, I attended a four-day conference put on by the now defunct Digital Equipment Corporation, AKA DEC. It was a sales and marketing conference attended by sales reps and managers from Canada and the United States. I was the Western Canadian sales manager for DEC’s PCBU. I can’t remember the exact number of people attending but I would guess it was well in excess of 700 people, perhaps as many as 1000. Much of the time there was spent in break-out sessions going over the features and benefits of some soon to be released products and becoming acquainted with the marketing initiatives aimed at promoting these new entries into our marketplace.
The company had also planned something else. Two of the days included lengthy sessions in a large auditorium with everyone in attendance. These sessions were billed as ‘games’ and mimicked a Roman Olympic theme. The first day featured a very convincing cardboard chariot in the middle of the stage. The ‘teams’ consisted of individuals from each region selected by higher management to represent their respective regions in the games.
Everyone entered the large hall and took their seats. As this was being held in the US, the host country being gracious, decided to allow the Canadian contingency to go first. Our Canadian General Manager, also gracious, decided that I should go first. After thanking him with the most incredulous look I could muster, I walked the long aisle-way to the front of the hall and climbed the three steps that led up to the stage. Once there, I was directed to stand behind the chariot and was handed a wireless microphone.
Looking out over the audience, I saw an ocean of my peers. Above them, suspended from the high ceiling was an aluminum bar holding a dozen or so spotlights pointing at the stage. To the left of the audience stood a camera man and next to him, a sound engineer. This was all being recorded and the CEO of the company was in attendance flanked by his management team. Higher echelons were watching! To my left, about 20 feet away was a table behind which sat five judges who were to score each of our ‘performances’.
The first game was simple enough. It relied on a scenario we often use in sales training.
“What if you had one minute to convince an important decision maker that doing business with your company is the best choice.”
The MC announced my name to the audience then looked at me and said:
“Gil, you just stepped into an elevator and recognized that you are with the President of Harley Davidson who you know is close to deciding on who his technology partner will be for the next 5 years. You also know that it’s between Digital, and IBM. You are on the first floor and you notice that he is going to the 15th, about a one minute ride.”
He then hands a microphone to my Californian counterpart who is standing in front of the chariot and playing the part of Harley Davidson’s President. He has one thing to do, namely, ask me a question.
“Gil, why is your value proposition better than IBM’s?”
I have often spoken to a crowd, some as large as this one, but I always had time to prepare. This was a challenge and I will be honest, I was grateful for the chariot. My knees were shaking!
I love an icebreaker, so I looked out at the audience and quoted the Dry Ideas tag line …
“And never let them see you sweat …”
I then launched into my pitch as best I could. When it was done, I looked over at the judges who held up score cards. [6.5] … [8.5] … [7.5] …  …  … my final score was tabulated as a 6.5
Despite the warm ovation, I returned to my seat, somewhat deflated.
Day 2 – How To Break A Rep
The next day, there were different games. Once again, my General Manager chose me because apparently the fellow who was slated to speak had sprained his wrist. This person was sitting beside me. To this day I have no idea how a sprained wrist would hamper ones ability to speak, but, there it is.
Once again I took to the stage but this time with a team member from two other regions. On the left of the stage were three easels each with a large white writing pad and a felt marker. We were each given a topic and two minutes to scribble down some thoughts. Then, one by one, our job was to stand in the middle of the stage and wax poetic for two minutes about our given topic. My topic was “Client-Server” but today, I would be the second speaker.
The woman who would go first was a sales representative from Texas. She was absolutely terrified. With moist pleading eyes, she looked at me and told me as much.
“I’m fine one on one, or even one on five … but this …”
I spent my two minutes coaching her as best I could. I told her to keep moving, don’t stand still, pace your talk, breathe, trust your knowledge. I did the best I could to help her smile and know that I was right there behind her cheering her every word.
She took the stage. For 60 seconds, she was amazing … then … she faltered … and that was it for her. She left the stage and left the hall with as much dignity as she could muster. She was humiliated, defeated and beaten down by a game she should never have been asked to play.
My turn. I went up and did my two minutes on Client-Server architecture. The judges gave me a 9. Descending from the stage, I left the auditorium to see if I could find the Texan representative. I didn’t have to look far. She was sitting in the hall sobbing, her spirit crushed. Her manager soon arrived and tried to make light of the situation. Exploding into tears, she ran out of the building. I proceeded to read the riot act to this man who shrunk before my eyes as I vociferously expressed my indignation towards his character, or lack thereof.
My friends and I looked for her the next 2 days but she had apparently flown home. I heard through the grapevine that she quit a month later. She had been ‘the top rep’ in her area …
If you plan on throwing someone who can’t swim into a pool, make sure it’s only a foot deep. If you need them to swim in the deep-end, then spend as much time as is needed swimming with that person in the deep-end, until they are comfortable doing so alone.
But remember this. Not everyone is a swimmer. Don’t ruin your high-jumpers by asking them to face their fear of water. If you need some swimmers, hire some.
I understand the ‘concept’ of personal growth by facing our fears. But, I also believe in the words balance, moderation and consideration. I never ask people to do things that they are uncomfortable with or unsuited for. Rather, I encourage and empower them to excel at the things that they are best suited for. This builds self-esteem and inner strength. Eventually, they might just dip their toes in the water on their own initiative.
You can’t build someone up by ripping them down.
Please … think about it. Speaking in public is not a game!
Conference Hall – The Microsoft Office Clip Art Collection