It’s almost 7 a.m. and I’m waiting in the lobby for my boss, who’s the breakfast keynote speaker at an international convention being held in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Suddenly, she bursts out of the elevator and runs up to me holding a suitcase and says, in her breathless machine-gun style:
“Sorry!…can’t stay! Rushing home. One of the kids…Slight accident ! Here are my notes…You’ll have to do it…Just read them out…They are in English. You’ll be OK!!!…I trust you!!!”
She hands me a bunch of 2”x4” cards, claps me on the shoulder, gives me a push towards the door of the main dining room and disappears out of the front door of the hotel. What happens next is still frozen in my memory, even 25 years later!
I walk in and get ushered to one of the front tables, while someone takes my business card. People are talking to me in Portuguese and other languages while I shakily sip a “cafezinho” that was slipped into my hands.
I try to assess the people around me and glance at the cards, but I can’t focus.
My heart is thumping in my chest and then, suddenly, a cheery voice booms out my name.
I spill some coffee and walk up to the lectern in a daze.
There’s some half-hearted clapping. I clutch the cards in my sweaty hand and think: the boss wouldn’t have asked me to do this if she didn’t trust me, right?
Things get even more complicated
I glance at faces as I walk up and most are just concentrating on sipping their own coffees, while others look up at me with sleepy, vacant eyes. Those who aren’t eating or clapping feebly are sitting back with their arms crossed (this MUST be a bad sign!)…and as I look down, a fat guy at the front table yawns.
Hmmmm…this really doesn’t feel good. All these Latin-looking people are probably expecting me to talk them in Portuguese, a language my boss is fluent in, but I’m not. Fortunately this is an ‘international’ event, so I hope that they all understand some English!
At the lectern, my mouth feels like sandpaper. I’m flushed and breathing hard. My only life-saver is that I’ve got the boss’ cards with her speech, and like she said, all I have to do is read them. She’s a great presenter, so I’ll be okay.
The room’s quiet. I put the cards down on the lectern, grip the edges with all my strength and look up. The darned spotlight’s blinding me, and I freeze. Shielding my eyes, I look down—Phew!!! The lectern light is bright enough for me to read the top card. It says:
TAKE A DEEP BREATH.
I take a couple of gulps of air and then read:
TEST THE MIC. COUNT TO THREE. SLOWLY!
I grab the mic. It squeaks as I adjust it. Then I count to three…right into the mic (Gosh, that was stupid!) and I hear my voice boom out, “One, Two, Three”. There isn’t another sound. Not a cup rattling, nobody talking, no waiters moving around, the Muzak’s samba is turned off—not a sound!
It really feels spooky because I know there are 600 people out there. They’re obviously waiting for me to screw up—I can feel the expectations! I glance down again and read the top card:
LOOK AT THE BACK OF THE ROOM. SMILE.
I look up blindly to where the back should be and grin like a vacant idiot. After what seems like a couple of hours I know that this is the moment of no return. I look down again and flip to the next card. It reads:
PLANT YOUR FEET FIRMLY ON THE GROUND.
And in small letters on the bottom: ‘next card’. I’m getting in the swing of things. I love these cards! So I stick my feet apart and flip to the next card which says:
INTRO – (remember : thank Joao Ferreira !!!)
JOKE – (Cockney elephant : “to die” – dying ground)
TARGETS – (Congratulate Jim & Alex from ACME !!!)
SALES – (Industry down 32% – we’re up 12%!!! Explain)
JOKE ??? – (Salesman/parrot/bar – 12 beers)
I freeze. These cards are no good! It must be the wrong speech! I can’t remember any Ferreiras or any jokes about elephants. . . I flip the other cards and they all seem to be in code! It’s too late: I’m up and I have to do something.
Improvise when you hit a barrier
The audience is still quiet. They must have figured out that I don’t know what I’m doing, especially when I counted to three out loud! As I clear my throat in rising panic, I remember my communications teacher in college who had told me tha
When you start a speech, you have about one minute to get the audience on your side.
Then I remember a trick my own boss had used before…so I take a breath and say into the microphone:
“Thanks and good morning! Now, before we start, would you all please—STAND UP! ”
And I gesture with my hands, encouraging people to get up. Still blind from the lights, I hear some chairs being moved around. I lean sideways out of the spotlight and see three people in the front, slowly getting up. Maybe I’m talking too fast and they don’t understand my English! I slip back into the light and waving my arms upwards say, very slowly:
“That’s – right – everybody! – LET US ALL – STAND – UP!”
I take another quick look outside the light. Almost all the 600 people in the room are now sheepishly getting to their feet. Wow! I now have 600 top industry executives from around the world (and their wives) waiting for my next command, so I say, speaking slooooowly:
“Terrific ! Now that we’re all up, let’s all stretch… raise your arms up as I am doing and … yes! that’s it!
S – T – R – E – T – C – H !”
And I stretch my arms above my head, showing them how to do it. I take another look out of the light and every one of those 600 people is doing the same, smiling shyly but apparently enjoying my directions. After a couple of stretches I put my hands down and tell them:
“That’s great! Mmmmm, that feels good, doesn’t it? Folks, you are GREAT stretchers!”
… and I applaud them. They all join in and they applaud me back! This is terrific! I get the feeling that they want to help me do a good job. That’s when I remember another trick my teacher had told me about, so I say:
“Now, while you are standing up, introduce yourself to the person on your right and on your left. Pick someone you don’t know. Tell them your name and give them your business card… and take one of their cards…repeat their name!…shake hands with them.”
I take another peek outside of the spotlight and people are talking, smiling, laughing and some are even hugging in the Brazilian way. The noise level goes up and for a few minutes there’s absolute bedlam. Everyone’s talking, laughing, shaking hands, leaning across tables and exchanging cards. I give them another minute and then tap the mic:
“Okay, okay, now that we’ve met everyone, we’re comfortable…and we’re AWAKE!, right?…(some people laugh) Let’s sit down again so that we can carry on with the program.”
While all this was going on I remember that my boss was supposed to talk about “The Industry Network” as it relates to our industry. Although I don’t feel really comfortable talking about the whole industry, I had my courage back so I decide to talk generally about ‘networking’. I feel it’s close enough so I lean into the mic and say:
“… and today we’re going to talk about NETWORKING!”
Nobody objects! Wow, what a feeling of power! People settle down and conversations stop and I now know that I’ve started okay. I’m on a roll and now I’m starting to have fun!
Know how to tell a story
My adrenaline is running and I have another flash: my old teacher had said that audiences want to be informed and entertained and that successful speakers are usually good storytellers. He said that an audience will go along with a speaker if they feel they can trust him and he is sincere.
I take another deep breath, take the mic out of its holder, step out of the spotlight and lean sideways on the lectern, like I think a story-teller would.
I tell them that I’m up there because one of my boss’ kids had had an accident (I hear a few sympathetic sounds from the women in the audience).Then, I tell them I’m going to talk about some personal networking stories. The moment they hear the word “stories,” there seems to be a rustling as they all sit back and get comfortable.
I start talking about what I do to meet new people.
“Every time I go to any meeting, a convention or a conference I ask for people’s business cards and I make a note on the back of the card about what we talked about so I can follow up the week after.”
Then I tell them:
- about being a shy kid until I got a new puppy. When I would take him for a walk, strangers would talk to me about him. I tell the audience “People like to have something in common to talk about . . .”
- about the man whose business card I got at last year’s convention who became one of my best suppliers … after I followed up . . .
- about overcoming the fear of making cold calls by letting the other person know that I wanted to learn something from him or her . . .
- about how hard it had been for me to visit clients I’d never met before until one of them told me how difficult it was for him to meet me, “the new sales rep”…
Then I tell them about becoming my company’s top sales rep, not because I am such a good salesperson but because I always make all my calls and make sure the percentages work for me.
I ask them if they know the secret of percentages:
I notice that some people are taking notes.
I go back to the lectern and into the spotlight and go on to say that my boss has taught me that “networking” is not only exchanging business cards, but also committing to being open, truthful, professional and sincere with others. This attitude will ALWAYS work for you…if you believe in it.
There’s not a sound in the room and I worry that some may not understand me, so I finish by talking about my great boss. I tell them what I like about her and my company…and about how she seems to trust me. I talk again about how she asked me to fill in for her because of that family emergency and remind them that family is much more important than business.
There’s still not a sound in the room…maybe they’ve all gone to sleep! So still holding the mic, I step sideways again, away from the lectern and out of the spotlight. They are all there, quiet as mice, watching me.
When I can see them clearly, I tell them they’re a great audience and that from what I’ve seen, they all seem to be excellent networkers already.
Then I thank them for the opportunity of talking with them, and as I move back to the lectern to put the mic back in its holder, all 600 jump up and give me a standing ovation!
Make things happen by taking a chance
What an unbelievable feeling! As I step down to go back to my table, people are thumping me on the shoulder as I go by, applauding me all the way.
For the next two days, while walking around the convention, people keep congratulating me on my speech, asking for my business card and telling me that my presentation set the tone for the rest of the convention. I only wish my boss had been there!
And now, thinking back to that morning I realize that while it would have been better if I had spoken Portuguese, the fact that most of the people in my industry speak some English helped me to connect with them.
I learned that audiences will always give you a chance, but I also knew that very few of those 600 people industry professionals would have changed places with me that morning. Speaking in public is still the number one fear for most people—and yet, if we can believe in ourselves, and are willing to take a chance, even in a foreign environment, anything is possible!
Have you ever given a presentation to industry professionals in a foreign market? What’s your best advice for knocking it out of the park (besides avoiding idioms)?