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The author during a better attempt
The author in a more successful effort

I had three minutes, which was perhaps part of the problem.  A professor barely clears his throat in three minutes.  This was to be the first in a chain reaction of miscues that doomed me from the start.

It’s happened to all of us. You prepare.  You plan. You strategize and try to imagine clearly how the speaking event will work. And then the moment comes, and sometimes the best-laid plans disintegrate like a sandcastle at high tide.

Bombing is rarely more painful than when it involves a presentation in front of a few hundred people.  Believe me, its even worse if you introduce yourself as a professor of communication just before making a complete hash of communicating.  As for a recent foul-up, after leaving the podium I thought I could almost hear someone whisper, “You know what they say, ‘If you can’t do it, maybe you can teach it.’”

In actual fact, making a presentation is a significant stressor.  It’s one of the moments where our fluency is linked to the full presentation of our physical selves.  It’s one thing to misspeak in a note or an e-mail. It’s another to be drag your entire person to the scene of the accident so that there can be no doubt who the fool was.

I collect these moments and we study them.  It seemed ok to laugh when Vice Presidential candidate Dan Quayle screwed up the slogan of the United Negro College Fund.  “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” is what the Fund said in its messages.  Quayle morphed this memorable idea into a head-scratching “It’s a terrible thing to lose one’s mind.”  But it’s clearly not ok when the botch is your own.

The occasion for my verbal meltdown was in brief testimony at a hearing in front of an important regional commission. My job was simply to add my voice and a few well-chosen words urging the panel to use its good offices to prevent an energy company from inflicting an environmental scar on a much-loved creek.  I had three minutes, which was perhaps part of the problem.  A professor barely clears his throat in three minutes. This was to be the first in a chain reaction of miscues that doomed me from the start.

I stammered.  I couldn’t easily read my notes. The microphone drooped.  I had a poster-sized photo of the creek and no place to put it.  And, to trigger this collapsing house of cards, I didn’t hear the Chair call me for my remarks. If the NTSB were reconstructing this train wreck, this is what they’d note:

  • The speaker placed himself in the back, and way too far from the podium, requiring him to run down the aisle and cross in front of the group while apologizing for not first hearing his name. In my defense, applause from the audience had just drowned the Chair’s call for the next speaker. The group was still expressing its appreciation for the 14 year-old who just delivered a pitch-perfect little sermon on environmental stewardship.  Never be the next act after a kid.
  • Out of breath, I suddenly realized that while I had my notes, I could not read them.  Both hands were occupied: one holding the large photo, and the other, my written remarks. So my reading glasses remained unhelpful in my pocket, and the time-clock was ticking down.
  • I decided to wing it.  This is never a good idea, somewhat akin to a commercial pilot deciding instruments are not needed because he’s sure he will know the right airport when he sees it. While you don’t simply want to read notes to an audience, they are prepared for a reason. They help you remember.  They represent a considered effort to introduce ideas in the right sequence.
  • I tried to recall the names of some important figures that helped explain the significance of my argument. But in the rush of early disorganization I couldn’t find them on the page, finally mutating the two people by mis-matching their first and last names.
  • And then I suddenly experienced the rush of anguish that happens when you know you’ve messed up. My voice faltered; I knew I had already missed my chance. There was little to do before rummaging for a final thought before slinking away.

It was all over in perhaps four minutes, and probably the worst presentation I’d given in my adult life (though my students might offer some other contenders for the prize).  It ruined the rest of my day.

The ballasts of age and time help remind us of better outcomes. I lecture to full and mostly appreciative classes at least 100 days a year. I write all the time. I know I can be fluent.  And I’ll cherish whatever successes I can reclaim in the future.  It’s harder when there are fewer opportunities to try again. Then, the wound of a bad outing heals more slowly.  But take heart in the knowledge that we all bomb,  and the next time will surely be better.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

Close Quarters

Source: Wikimedia.org
An Amtrak Dining Car , Wikimedia.org

Cramped conditions can be interesting ad-hoc laboratories: chances to see how individuals cope with another’s intrusion into their intimate space.

Life has a way of randomly throwing us together with complete strangers in tight spaces.  Trains, elevators, airplanes and crowded stores typically violate the two- to four-foot zone that we preserve for ourselves.

For most of us, being momentarily stuck in a small space with a crowd is a simple nuisance.  But for a student of interaction patterns, cramped conditions can be interesting ad-hoc laboratories: chances to see how individuals cope with another’s intrusion into their intimate space.

We’ll skip planes, where the experience is something to be endured, and where travelers are just thankful to still have the free use of the plane’s pressurize air.  But consider the ubiquitous elevator, and the mix-and-match experience of having a meal in a railroad dining car.

As little closets expected to hold 10 or 12 people, elevators represent the triumph of necessity over comfort. Walking twelve flights is a good workout. But no one wants to arrive at their business destination looking like they just finished the New York Marathon. So in the cramped space of the little vertical room, eyes are averted to the ceiling, the poster advertising the restaurant in the lobby, or to a middle distance that is supposed to relieve others of the need to respond. It actually becomes harder to remain completely disengaged when only one or two are on an elevator. But there are safe tropes for a brief conversation that can help pass the time.  Comments on the weather are safe, as are observations on how slow this particular version of the vertical room is. In a hotel perhaps a timid query about where a co-passenger is from will work. But even that can tread near the borders of the acceptable. Not surprisingly, our comfort in these settings seems to be in direct proportion to the frequency of the experience. Living in the center of Chicago or New York, a person learns how to be a compatible stranger.

A few years ago I was at a convention at a large urban hotel where the management thought it would be a good idea to include a small built-in television screen and speaker just above the elevator’s control panel. Strangers who stepped in had to be ready for more than a vertical ride. They were immediately thrust into the world of CNN, where a good day means covering a national or world crisis with live and often disturbing images of mayhem. On this occasion I recall an endlessly repeated report focusing on community outrage over a police shooting. The story featured a home video of police beating and subduing two African American men.  Gunshots followed and one of the men died.

Endlessly looping the footage of the attacks over audio discussions of excessive force had the effect of throwing many convention-goers out of their celebratory mood and in to the much harder world of a socially polarized nation. As the elevator went up the mood of the passengers inevitably went down.

Here’s the interesting thing. The collection of individuals in the elevator became common witnesses to an ugly incident.  And yet no one wanted to react; no one wanted to reveal themselves to strangers by interpreting what CNN’s report meant. Opinions remained too intimate to risk with this transitional group.  Even so, our daily lives are not unlike this transitional moment. Like the tiny space that shuttles between floors, the pervasiveness of our media constantly deliver us to social situations which are not stable for very long.  Media relentlessly deliver us to vastly different representations of the human drama, some comforting and some disturbing.

Long-distance rail travel is another interesting case.  By custom, a single traveler eating in the dining car of a train will be asked to join others to make a table of four. Amtrak doesn’t accommodate the shy who want to eat alone. No other social routine is so likely to throw a person into the intimacy of a shared meal with total strangers. And yet the experience can be surprisingly refreshing.  If most of us live in a bubble of like-minded friends, the dining car is easily going to pierce it. On a recent trip that included lunch and diner I met a clearly well-heeled woman from Virginia horse country returning home after a speech to a woman’s group.  We sat across from a trucker from Elkhart Indiana who delivers buses all over the U.S. (and had to tell us about his $60,000-a-year salary).  At other meals I met two retired professors from Berkeley on their way to see family in Minnesota, a grizzled Florida retiree returning from a football game in Nebraska, and a perfectly dressed older woman off to see friends in the District of Columbia.

The rules of the table were always clear: references to hometowns, the lateness of the train, and dispersed families are all fair game. Politics, religion and other “third rail” topics are not.  We also had the common experience of having hit a car just after midnight.  It had died and been hastily abandoned on the tracks.  So we compared notes on who had been able to sleep while fire crews pulled the impaled automobile off the front of the engine.

My experience is that Midwesterners sometimes go on for too long about the prospects of their city or college football teams. I usually return the favor by becoming loquacious about the surprising beauty of New Jersey. But there is a bigger lesson here. Spending time in these close quarters is usually reassuring. Eating in Amtrak’s café or dining cars is as close as most of us will get to making contact with a random group of ordinary Americans. If we allow it, even this chance encounter can remind us of our shared and simple decency.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu