Complacency in front of a big audience will lead to disappointment all round. Maybe even a heart attack: there's nothing like standing on a stage not really knowing what is going to happen next. You should ken fine what's next, it's your gig. Preparation is all: know who you will be speaking to and what they want; structure well; integrate technology; think creatively and find your stories; practise delivery 17 times; shine those shoes and dress up nice. All are important.
In the recent Presidential and Prime Ministerial debates Obama tanked against Romney, apparently having spent the day trying to avert a third world war. When Clegg beat Cameron and Brown in their first debate he knew what the audience wanted, spoke directly to them (through the camera) and used names. Cameron was overconfident because he fancies himself as a debater and was cocky and under-prepared. (He was only cocky for the first five minutes and did not make the same mistake for debates two and three. Gordon was consistently Gordon for all three debates.)
Last week I had to get from Glasgow to Edinburgh for the 3.30pm graveyard slot at a conference. The train takes an hour but I had to drive. It's not my preference but I had to be on the Edinburgh side of Glasgow early next morning. Driving takes about an hour too. I was feeling virtuous having punched the Apex Hotel postcode into TomTom, rather than pointing the car east and hoping for the best. What could go wrong?
Well, not far off two hours after I left bucolic Brookfield, west of Glasgow, I was at the reception of the hotel, car outside on double yellow. The receptionist assured me there was no conference at their gaff... but have I tried the Apex International Hotel next door? (Another Apex Hotel next door... who knew?)
I was assured they had parking out back which is amazing, since finding parking in Edinburgh is as likely as your iPhone sustaining a connection for the entirety of a five minute call.
Five minutes later I was talking to my second receptionist of the afternoon, looking to check-in and dump my stuff, before heading for the conference stage.
"Wardrop, Russell Wardrop..." I said.
"Wardrop? Um... We have a Cornelius Wardrop... Are you Cornelius?" She looked at me, sizing up the liklihood of me being a Cornelius. We were both skeptical, me more so.
"No, Russell. Where is the conference? Are they on a break? I could go and see them and come back later to check-in. I really need to let them know I've arrived..." Time was marching on, I left my case and travelled to the fifth floor. I was certain that my contact Brian had booked me under the name Cornelius for a laugh. Ha ha, what fun. But the fifth floor was empty save a few genteel oldsters enjoying the castle view, definitely not my audience.
"Excuse me, where are the conference rooms?" They were on the first floor and I made my way there, a corridor with many rooms off it. All doors were closed and there was no clue as to who was behind them. Bugger.
I am now back at reception, looking for my conference delegates, to be told there were no such delegates at the hotel and no room big enough for a conference.
"Have you tried the Apex hotel next door?" Aye very good...funnily enough.
"Yes, they sent me here since there are two Apex hotels in Edinburgh."
"No, there are four... Cornelius" (She never said Cornelius, smart enough to know it probably was not a good time for humour.)
Four? Four Apex Hotels in Edinburgh? How terribly unimaginative. I was 20 minutes by car (15 if I walked, but that's Edinburgh for you) to the right place and now had a good old fashioned map, with a biro-hewn route. After reaching my final destination had to turn around where possible, in 100 yards take the right at Princes Street, turn first right, after 200 yards take the first left and then I had reached my destination: an NCP car park. There was no parking at this, third, Apex Hotel. I never found the fourth. I had to walk back to reception. For true comedy value, I noticed I was two minutes from Waverley Station.
It remains a mystery how TomTom managed to get the postcode of the wrong Apex Hotel, since I only had the address and postcode for the right one (Though, with my previous, human error is the likely explanation).
The preparation secret I share here is available to all. It is huge and applies to any pitch, seminar or conference keynote: get there on time! It took me two hours and forty minutes to get to a destination that many people would plan to get to in an hour, or maybe leave 90 minutes. And despite a horrible, jinxed journey I arrived at about 2.30pm for a 3.30pm start. My aim was to get there at 1.30pm latest, check in, have some lunch with the delegates, chill and freshen up. In other words, give myself time to get in the zone (I never had as much as I wanted, but still had plenty).
It was interesting to watch Obama in that first Presidential Debate: he looked startled, uncomfortable, was too often on the defensive, waffled and rarely attacked or even asserted his authority. He was not in the zone. Often I see speakers startled by their own presentation, their technology, room layout, audience or just the fact that the spotlight is on them. Amateur, the audience quite rightly thinks.
You have to be ready when the time comes. There are no excuses if you are not. Whenever I chew the fat over travel arrangements my mantra is, "Get me as close to the venue as you can, as soon as you can." I'll endure a late flight, a more difficult route or poorer hotel if it means I can get to the gig on foot.
So two pieces of advice: Get there astonishingly early... and never drive from Glasgow to Edinburgh.
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about the author
Russell Wardrop is our Chief Executive. If you would like to know more about this subject, drop him an email and we will be in touch.