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The Cock-Up Report (When events go horribly wrong)

When I am speaking to small enterprises I am often asked who they should speak to, to get a guide to success, and I am then bombarded with a list of global successes. Having read most of the biographies of very successful people I realise that usually it is a tale of luck and that they have no idea of how such riches came to them. The person to talk to, I suggest, is the guy with the hungry dog on a piece of hairy string and who is begging for change on the pavement. If you find out how he got there you will know what to avoid before you end up like him.

The same applies to events. I am about to recount some of my event horrors that still, as a business speaker, make me break out into a cold sweat, but with every cringe-making disaster there is a useful lesson to be learned. They say, as a parent, you can be equally useful as a shining example or a terrible warning – so terrible warning it is and here goes.

Colleagues are not naturally great actors and we should beware of conference organisers with brilliant snappy ideas. A delicious catastrophe I recall was, on paper, the great idea of “The Starship Good Enterprise” (get it?) On stage however things became a little complicated but this was a multi-national technology company and the rule is if you chuck enough cash at the crew they can organise anything. The idea was this: the set would be the Bridge of the Starship Good Enterprise, its mission was to cringe-makingly go where no colleague had gone before, to delight the customer and embrace change,  whilst being agile. The colleagues would be dressed as starship crew and would ‘beam’ guests aboard to be asked pertinent, pre-prepared questions in a natural galactic mid-atlantic accent. (First fail, just because Gordon from Accounts Received is diligent and loyal doesn’t mean he can act). ‘Matter transport’  however big the budget, could have been a problem, but there is an ancient conjurors’ trick called ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ where a combination of mirrors, light and glass, can make people appear and disappear. So now we are ready, the audience is in, the ‘crew’ are on the Bridge with their list of pertinent questions and announcements.

“Captain, permission to beam our expert business speaker aboard?”
“Permission granted.”

Ok, a little wooden in the delivery but we’re getting there. The secret was a trap door in the stage underneath which I stood on a sort of tea tray and when the lights were right, accompanied with a lot of woo-wooing and other appropriate sci fi noises, I was hoisted through the hole to the stage by a  burly biker where I materialised ready to give my talk. 

Following me was the Chief Executive who had in a past life been a prominent athlete and body builder. Now facing middle age he was still six feet tall but had bulked out considerably particularly around the middle.

“Captain, permission to beam the Chief Executive aboard”
“Permission granted.”

Woo! Woo! Woo! As eighteen stone of meat and muscle climbed aboard the tea tray. The biker, muscles tensing, hoisted away and this was where the Chief Executive’s shoulders jammed firmly in the hole whilst something in the biker snapped leaving him looking a little like Quasimodo. When the lights went up what had beamed aboard was just a head, a very florid angry head, that was at floor level like a kind of furious soccer ball. Without breaking step the colleagues went into their set question routine.

“How will we benefit from the new software development centre?”

The football’s reply, despite its status, was anything but polite and consisted mostly of expletives of quite an anatomical and personal nature – the translation of which seemed to suggest a requirement for assistance with escape from its current position. Finally, a colleague with a little more courage and a lot more initiative than the others, placed a foot on the Chief Executive and pressed him gently but firmly back to the planet’s surface, whereupon he reappeared from a fire exit and as the biker was carted off to hospital the Chief Executive continued his Q & A but I must admit the magic was lost. 

Message: the more ambitious the set, the more opportunities for disaster and, if you want people to act, hire actors.
A similar cautionary tale came about because of another conference designer coming up with an exotic idea that looked great on paper but in truth had trouble written all over it.

The idea was this: the client, a large financial institution, every year had an expensive, huge, but worthy conference – well I say worthy but that is just a kind euphemism for boring – so boring in fact that the previous year’s event caused mutinous rumblings amongst the audience. Management were aware of this and tasked the organisers with a brief that clearly stated ‘not boring’.

Here is the ripping wheeze they came up with.

A huge flat set that was very very boring. The Chief Executive strides out, welcomes the audience and plunges, with the aid of Powerpoint, into a stack of dreary facts and figures, BUT what is this, he is being heckled.

“Boo, boring, BOR-RING!”
“Oh no” the audience think, “Who is heckling the CEO?” 
“Who is that?” cries the CEO indignantly
“Me” says the courageous mutineer (who looks scarily like the Head of Events, but no matter)
“This is boring, you promised fun for this year”

The CEO now angered comes back
“I suppose you want dancing girls and lasers?”
“Yeah that would be good!”
“OK, if that’s what you want”
The CEO claps his hands, the huge flat set collapses to reveal, yes you’ve guessed it, lasers and dancing girls. 

The preparations were made, a Brazilian Salsa group was hired and the set was triggered to fall. The faux heckling was rehearsed. (To be a little critical it never seemed natural or spontaneous but nil desperandum.) To start with all seemed to go as planned, the Salsa group lurked in darkened silence bongos at the ready, the lasers were powering up and my uplifting but relevant presentation had been committed to memory. The CEO stood out front and we heard our cue.

“I suppose you want dancing girls and lasers?”
“Yeah”
“If that’s what you want…”
Not Royal Shakespeare but workmanlike enough. Clap. Clap.

The catches were pulled, the pyrotechnics detonated and the huge set began to fall
In rehearsal the CEO had been given very clear marks of where to stand but like all CEO’s he felt he could stand where he chose. The shame was that it was exactly where the set fell and it duly flattened him.  With his head and arms showing he looked like a big square, flat turtle.

The event fell into complete disarray but to be fair it wasn’t boring and was very memorable.

Message: Even CEO’s have to do what they’re told.

On which subject, we get on to the prickly area of auto-prompters, a piece of kit that I think is the spawn of the devil. Whenever you see the politician who is looking at you but somehow isn’t, then looks right – one two three four, then looks left – five six seven eight, then looks straight ahead but right through you, you know they are using an auto-prompt, but even these things need rehearsing. Even CEO’s who use them need rehearsing.

The CEO in this tale disagreed.

“I’m a natural, me! I can give a presentation with such natural verve no one would guess I was reading it. Right first time, me, I’ve no need to rehearse, you can roll the words and I’ll read them like I first thought of them straight from the heart.”

The day came and fair play he could read – and with considerable emotion. Building to a Churchillian crescendo, one hand clenched and banging the lectern, the other pointing skyward with Messianic vigour. A little frothy at the mouth perhaps, a bit shouty, but most convincing.

“This company WILL MOVE FORWARD WITH A PURPOSE!”
Then the duplicitous auto-prompt gently rolled another unexpected line …”built factory in Essex.”

Message: Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, no matter who you are. If you’ve been charged with organising the conference you are the boss even of the boss.
Another clever heckling jape which failed spectacularly (why do they do it?) worked on the fiction that the MC or presenter hadn’t shown up. Jolly attempts were made to persuade the various members of management to take on this task who in all good jesting spirit refused.

“So who can present our conference?”
To the audience, “Do any of you fancy it?”
“I do” returned a madcap call and running on to the stage came the crazy wild and expensive lead from a very popular alternative comedy TV series. This could have worked if the audience hadn’t been actuaries and who were very unlikely to have been viewers of this wacky show – so unlikely in fact that nobody knew who he was. This star smelt trouble and in an attempt to jolly things along, threw his arms wide and called “IT’S ME” which was greeted by the odd polite cough, then a silence only broken by the sound of a chill wind blowing a healthy crop of tumbleweed across the room!

Message: know your audience

On the subject of audiences I will now turn to multi-national conferences.

At a top European event that I was invited to address, I was also asked to sit with the other speakers on stage ready for the Q & A session. A very eminent and engaging German economist of some fame was passionately presenting a very deep but a little arcane view of global finance. The audience was a mix of nationalities and had gathered in their respective groups around the room. The British contingent lurked at the back. The speaker tried to engage each group by making them question his theories.

“Yes my friend, where are you from and what is your name?”

“I am Luigi Falcotti from Italy. Sir, do you think the derivatives market is overheating?”
A great detailed answer came back.

“Arnold Vandervalk, Holland. Can the euro survive in its current form?”
Finally after many nations, a British contribution.

“Ah! A question from Britain. What is your name?”
A British voice from the gloom shouted out, “Don’t tell him PIKE!”
Chaos ensued amongst the British contingent and the poor man turned to me for an explanation which, for the sake of diplomacy, I could not offer.

Message: really really know your audience.

Because of my faultless professionalism, things fortunately don’t go wrong for me…I wish.

The phrase ‘After Dinner Speaking’ can start to illuminate red lights on my dashboard.

My wife is my partner in the PC sense and  also my partner in the business sense and we often discuss the pitfalls and rewards of after dinner speaking. These, therefore, are the rules of thumb we use and the warning signs we look out for. Whilst I use humour in my presentations I am a business speaker with, hopefully, relevant business messages, therefore not suitable for (and there is no polite way to put this) the company piss-up. Clues are comments like
“The lads like to work hard and play hard.” 

“Have some fun with us, we aren’t afraid to laugh at ourselves.”
“There is a free bar all afternoon and unlimited wine at dinner so don’t be afraid to be a bit risqué.”
“At about 11 p.m. we will have a few joke awards, then you do your stuff but keep it short because we’ve got a great band.”
Formal dinners for customers, members, or distributors, can be great, and a relevant pre-dinner talk after a training day is good. With this in mind we tend to ask careful questions of the client.

This particular brief was from a respectable computer company – ok there were employees but also resellers and franchisees. What could possible go wrong…
I arrived at the beautiful country house venue where the garden room was elegantly laid for the black tie dinner. There had been some awkwardness earlier in the day, apparently the Finance Director had got into some argy bargy with the CEO and had been fired on the spot – something to do with a drink problem, rudeness, and gross misconduct. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that he had got his supporters who felt he had been unfairly treated but not my problem.

The dinner went well, the set up was great with a lectern and a good quality mic. Perhaps a little too much wine was flowing and there had been a long and generous drinks reception – yes, they were a little boisterous but I could handle them, or so I believed. The spoon rapped on the table, the room fell silent-ish and I was introduced. The only fly in this cheery ointment was a raging thunderstorm going on outside. As I took my place at the lectern the rain poured down, the thunder rumbled, the lightning flashed. I glanced towards the French windows and illuminated by the fierce electric blue light of the lightening, was a mad, staring, ragged figure, his shirt in tatters whipping around him in the savage wind. It was the now completely drunk and completely insane ex finance director.

Crash!  The thunder roared. Crash went the French windows as this lunatic burst through them.  He flew across the room and flung himself at the top table catching the stunned CEO by the throat. The whole horrible tangle fell in a heap on the floor.

This action set the two factions off and a proper Hollywood style bar room brawl ensued, a true John Wayne style ‘knock em down and drag em out’ fight. Punches, chairs and glasses flew, the air turned green with flying sprouts and as this grew into a full blown war I was lucky to have a very solid lectern to crouch behind.

I reached for my phone which as with all well behaved speakers was firmly switched off (don’t they take some time to warm up when you need them?) Who to call? Police, ambulance, fire? No this was far too terrible, I decided to call my wife.

“Hello?”
She heard the crashing and screaming
“What’s going on?”
“There’s a huge fight” I replied
Her gentle, thoughtful, caring reply?
“Oh my God, what the hell did you say to them?”

Message: no job is ever a walk in the park…unless you accept this park has hungry bears in it.

I always like to arrive in very good time for an event and if it’s a conference I think it’s a good idea to sit in and hear a few presentations to take in the atmosphere. With that in mind I arrived at one of the UK’s biggest conference venues in what I considered to be good time. I strolled towards the conference centre humming a little him and just running through my key points in my head, when to my surprise I was met by a man wearing a logoed polo shirt and a very worried expression. He carried a clipboard and was wearing headphones that had a little aerial and a lip-mic. He spoke to the voices in his head, “I think I’ve found him” and then to me “are you the motivational speaker?”

“Well” I chuckled mischievously “Some people may call me that but…”

“Don’t prat about, where did you get to, you’re on in thirty seconds.”

He then produced a lapel mic from his pocket, wired me up, took my briefcase and shoved me through a door which led me backstage of a huge auditorium. A clone of the first man was there, counting down from three on his fingers. At zero he nodded frantically at me and pointed to the brightly lit stage.

How could I have got it so wrong? Oh well, no worries, I’m a pro and I strode out. When you’re a professional speaker you know when you’ve got ‘em, they sit transfixed mouths open, their lives being transformed by your golden words, they are thinking “this man’s wonderful.” Actually what they were really thinking was “Who the hell is that?”

To put it simply I was speaking at the wrong conference, I should have been at the chocolate coated wafer bar conference and I was at the verruca ointment conference. It was the perfect storm; the verruca speaker had failed to appear at a venue that has half a dozen identical rooms in a warren of corridors and was supposed to be on just at the moment I appeared. Considering I was at entirely the wrong conference I felt the speech had gone rather well and the organisers, as it turned out, weren’t that disturbed despite the fact that they didn’t offer me the other guy’s fee which I felt was a bit stingy! However I do have a lifetime’s supply of verruca ointment as a gesture and I finished in good time to be able to speak at the job I was meant to be at.

Message: if you give your speaker contact details make sure you are contactable during the conference. Also make sure you are in touch with your speakers on the day. Don’t risk a ‘seagull’ speaker who just flies in, squawks, and flies off again. Get your whole show assembled in good time.