Be ready for any surprise
“The ability to assemble one’s thoughts and speak on the spur of the moment is even more important, in some ways, than the ability to speak only after lengthy and laborious preparation.”
–Dale Carnegie, “The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking”
Way back in my early career, I was called upon to give an impromptu talk to a Metro Toronto Committee.
I was a shaking, dry-mouthed mess. I had been led to understand that while I would provide the research for the presentation, brilliant Metro Councillor Joan King would actually deliver it. Blithely, I turned up at her office to be told by her assistant: “Councillor King is tied up in a meeting and has asked that you deliver the presentation to Committee.”
I almost peed my pants. WHAT?? I had never presented to Committee before. I had never done ANYTHING at that professional level before.
I dragged myself to the Committee meeting room and took my seat in the row of speakers. Everyone was there for the same reason: to ask for funds for their program from the limited Tourism budget. My group, Taxis on Patrol, was asking for $7,000 to help fund an annual program which presented awards to cab drivers that had helped improve safety on Toronto streets. It also had a strong impact on improving the often-tenuous relationships between the cab industry, the city, and police.
My favourite Taxis on Patrol (“TOPS”) story was of a driver who saw a woman being beaten by a man on the street. He swerved to the curb and threw open his front door: the woman jumped in, he auto-locked the doors and just kept driving.
In our most famous file, a driver had a mother in the back seat whose fevered baby had gone into convulsions. The driver contacted dispatch who contacted 911 who walked the driver through every step to restore the baby to consciousness – we actually got permission to release the dramatic 911 tape of that event, and when it was played for Metro Council, several of the councillors were crying at the end of it. The baby lived.
So while I had every confidence in the value of our program, I was terrified at the prospect of presenting to Committee. I reviewed my notes until they blurred before my eyes. OhMyGod, I groaned inwardly. I wished I was dead.
To make matters infinitely worse, the speaker before me got up and delivered an amazingly smooth, polished and persuasive pitch. He had an expensive, fast-moving video presentation to accompany his remarks: he was representing the as-yet unfinished Hockey Hall of Fame, and they needed a substantial sum – $100,000, as I recall – to finish the project.
The Hockey Hall of Fame, he summarized, would cement Toronto’s reputation as a leader in tourism. Toronto would quickly recoup its investment in the Hockey Hall of Fame through the dollars spent by happy hockey fans making the trek to such an illustrious destination. They just needed enough money to finish it.
I sat bolt upright: $100,000? These people had the guts to ask for $100,000, and I was worrying about a measly $7,000?
I threw away my notes and approached the speakers’ microphone.
“THAT was a great presentation,” I congratulated the speaker ahead of me. “I am impressed. I am convinced: Toronto SHOULD support the Hockey Hall of Fame. Toronto should fund a landmark of this magnitude. Tourists WILL love to visit this site, make special trips just to do so, and spend lots of money while they are here.”
I could see the confused looks on Committee members as I proceeded.
“And you know what else? I can promise you this: should that tourist come to Toronto, and have the best time ever, and love every minute of the trip including the Hockey Hall of Fame – should that tourist have a negative experience with his cab driver on the way back to the airport, THE ONLY THING THAT TOURIST WILL REMEMBER was how upset he was by his cab driver while he was in Toronto.”
I looked up to the row of Committee members to see one woman had her head down on the desk. Her shoulders were heaving and jerking, and at first I thought she was either choking or sobbing. It was a very confusing moment. My presentation must have been even worse than I feared.
When she lifted her head off the desk, I could see that in fact she was laughing hysterically: deep, sincere, genuine gut-busting laughter. When she finally regained control, catching her breath and wiping tears from her eyes, she was the first Councillor to comment:
“I think Ms. Smith makes a very valid point. I agree. I think we should support Taxis on Patrol.”
The rest of the Committee quickly agreed, and my first presentation to Committee was over almost as soon as it began. I left the room in a fog of relief.
I think back to that day often, when I am coaching new and nervous speakers. I still suspect Joan King set me up, to push me to make that presentation.
And the Councillor, the sole Committee member who “got it” and instantly understood the ironic juxtaposition of something as grand as the Hockey Hall of Fame with the daily plight of a Toronto cab driver?
That was Olivia Chow.
The essay above was published originally in 2014 at [email protected]