‘Just Say a Few Words’

Reflecting on public foot-in-mouth experiences.

When I was young and silly, I had an absolute terror of making a fool of myself in public. Like most of us, I got over this by doing it repeatedly.

Mostly, I didn’t jump — I was pushed.

Piss-poor in Wigan

Six months into my first job as an editor, my friend and colleague Stefan saddled me with giving a talk on ‘Trading with Germany’ to the worthy members of the Wigan & District Chamber of Commerce.

He’d given one a few months previously and they’d asked him back, but he was coming down with a cold. As he was German, this required languishing at home for a week, being pampered by his lovely Dutch girlfriend.

I had neither a cold nor a lovely Dutch girlfriend, and I was the company’s other ‘German expert’.

‘It’s easy, Steve, you just stand there and talk a bit, then answer questions. They’re very friendly.’

Yeah, right.

The speaker before me spoke for 30 minutes about bills of lading. I had no idea what a bill of lading was, and I would have been quite happy to keep it that way, to be honest. Yet the audience of earnest Lancashire entrepreneurs and senior managers found this topic fascinating; there was a lively Q&A session at the end.

Then I was on. I had some pretty slides with statistics, a few platitudes about German business ethos and etiquette, and a couple of lame jokes. After all, I had just finished a Ph.D. on Renaissance German literature. What I knew about doing business with Germans could be written on the back of a beer coaster.

The reception was polite, but frosty. I got a simpering smile of sympathy from the organiser — or was it a wince? I’m not sure.

They didn’t ask me back.

Miserable in Munich

A few months into my second job, with a publisher of foreign language courses in Oxford, I was sent over to Munich to meet our German distributors and attend their annual sales conference. All on my lonesome.

My boss, Jane: ‘Just get up and say a few words to the sales reps about our new titles. They’re very easy-going.’

Yeah, right.

A German sales conference is a formal affair. There were speeches. They’d printed a commemorative book of recipes from the conference menu for all the participants to take home. I still have mine. It’s a neat little cloth-bound hardback, with watercolour illustrations.

The sales reps considered themselves a Very Big Deal. The in-house management team were shit-scared of offending them. Some of them had had the same sales territory for decades.

The annual sales conference was the main opportunity to present new titles to the reps, who then had to get out to the bookshops and sell them. The reps were on the road for the rest of the year, so there was little opportunity to communicate with them at other times. (No mobile internet back then. Barely internet at all: it was 1992.) This conference was it.

They hadn’t had any new titles from us for over a year.

It gets better.

The new packaging of our courses didn’t conform to German environmental standards because our production manager, who didn’t speak German, had filed the forms for the Grüner Punkt (Green Dot) registration in the too-hard basket. She instructed the designer to slap a general ‘recyclable’ symbol on the covers instead. Surely that would do?

This made the courses essentially unsaleable in the German market.

I didn’t know any of this. I’d never been to a sales conference.

I thought I was going there for an informal chat about the books I was working on. I’d met the two directors of the company previously. They had seemed friendly and avuncular.

I sat through the first hour of slick presentations from other publishers, with slides, extensive hand-outs. Probably there were dancing bears busting breakdance moves on the stage, I don’t remember.

I was due to go on in the second hour, after the coffee break. All I had was a few notes. No handouts. No slides. No dancing bears. I knew I was going to be crucified.

was crucified. I practically started a riot. One of the directors studiously ignored my existence for the rest of the day.


I drew three life lessons from this, which have stood me in good stead:

Lesson 1: Prepare. Never ‘get up and say a few words’. Prepare your arse off. Respect the audience, never waste people’s time.

Lesson 2: When you’re up there, be fearless. Others may think they can do better, but you’re the one who got the gig. This is my stage now and I’m going to fucking own it.

Lesson 3: When delivering a speech to Germans, bring dancing bears.

Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “‘Just Say a Few Words’

  1. I’ve been ‘best man’ at two weddings and had to give a speech at both. The first didn’t know how crap I’d be but the second had no excuse. Hard way to learn that public speaking is not for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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