Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hamina, Hamina, Hamina

I heard once that, second only to death, the thing people fear most in life is speaking in front of a group. "Glossophobia" or speech anxiety comes from the Greek word glossophobia  meaning tongue, and phobos, fear or dread. If you've ever waited in the wings to make a presentation, cotton-mouthed and sweaty-palmed, you know the feeling. I shudder when recalling the first time I had to speak in front of a business group. I was in the sales training program for the Standard Register Company. Before trainees were admitted to the sales force and assigned a territory, they had to make a presentation to the rest of the sales team and several managers including the regional Vice President. Although you might think this would be a relatively friendly audience, this was not the case at all. This rite of passage was hell for the trainees because the audience got a fiendish pleasure out of hazing the presenters. Heckling, rude noises and rapid-fire technical questions about the company's products were par for the course.

I was nervous for two reasons. First, there was the aforementioned fear of public speaking. We wore suits and ties in those days and I was sweating like an Enron accountant. Second, I really didn't understand the company's products all that well. Standard Register made electronic cash registers and data handling equipment like "bursters" that removed the margins with holes that fed the continuous sheets of paper through the printer. This was in the days before sheet printers eliminated these clunky machines. Although I didn't even have the sales job yet, I had a sinking feeling that sales was not the career for me. Because I sensed there was no future in this job, I didn't exactly kill myself preparing for this gig. I could see some of the older guys, Lou, Bob, Bill, Stan, Larry and my manager Alex, signalling by gestures that they were laying for me. What could I possibly say to hold their interest and keep them from humiliating me in front of the big V.P. who would decide my fate?

There were no desktop computers or snazzy visual aids in the 1960s; no PowerPoint software that in 30 minutes could whip out a professional presentation with stunning graphics. All we had were big flip charts on which we wrote out our story using magic markers, the smelly kind that could get you high if you sniffed them long enough. I had maybe a dozen sheets filled with bullet points about what I wanted to say about our company and its products. I was careful not to put too much text on each chart because I was told that reading it can become tedious for the audience. I was going to paste colored pictures of our product line on the charts to supplement my talking points, but at the last minute made a change in the charts. As the other presenters finished their remarks, it was now my turn. I could see Lou nudge Bill; two of the biggest b-busters in the office were getting ready to ambush me; the blood was in the water.

I could barely speak as I croaked out my first few lines. My mouth was dry and my voice quavered. (Later in life as I became a more experienced speaker, I learned that these symptoms never go away, you just learn to deal with them better.) My introductory remarks were met with bored stares. At least four speakers had preceeded me, and I was standing squarely between these guys and their lunch. Alex, my manager, gave me the "speed-it-up" signal. As I flipped the next chart page there was an uproar in the group. In place of the colored pictures of company products, I had substituted pictures of scantily clad women from the pages of an old Playboy that was floating around the office. The audience was all men, and I immediately had their undivided attention. I didn't miss a beat. I told my story with a straight face, exactly as I had rehearsed it. I don't think the guys heard a word I said, but they hooted and applauded as I turned each page. As any secretary in the room could tell you, the regional V.P. was the biggest letch in the room. He smiled and nodded through my entire pitch.

The ploy worked. As I heard the audience's laughter and applause, I relaxed. My voice became strong and assured, and I pulled it off without a stumble. When I finished, it was handshakes all around. Over the years I have learned that humor in a presentation can be a great tension reliever, but it can also lead to disaster. I once saw a V.P. at Con Edison, who was making a presentation to the company's Board of Directors, tell the most inappropriate joke anyone ever told to a business group. The deathly silence that followed was a sure indication that not only would he not get a promotion to senior V.P. (which this presentation was kind of an audition for) but shorthly thereafter, he was let go by the company. Oh by the way, I did get the sales job, but as I suspected, it was not for me. I hated making cold sales calls trying to sell people stuff they really didn't need. I soon left Standard Register for a job on Wall Street, and single-handedly caused the market crash of the mid-Sixties that temporarily ended all those fat bonuses I was promised, but that's another story.

I always felt like I cheated in getting through my first real public speaking experience. Giving a good presentation is really an art form, and later in my career I had occasion to give many that I thought were pretty good. I can't help but wonder though what my fate would have been if I tried to survive Lou and Bill that day without help from Playboy.


Children's Cranioacial Association


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

If it is any consolation, I found Playboy to be inspirational! I spent many hours studying it, and have heard from time to time that there are even articles in the magazine!

Jim Pantaleno said...