I had cause to remember today that one of my jobs, among many other things, at a trade association conference and other events was what I called “Speech Wrangler.” If somebody was supposed to get behind a microphone as part of the opening ceremonies or an awards ceremony or to introduce the keynote speaker, it was my job to make sure they were there, in place and ready. On more than a few occasions this meant trying to find that person as the clock ticked down to their moment.
There is an art to finding people at a conference, just like there is an art to finding lost freight inside a building that takes up several city blocks. You know how, on large athletic fields or huge parking lots, there is always a corner where a chain-link fence eventually catches all the trash because the wind blows this way and that more often than any other way? It’s the same way in a convention facility. After years you learn which corners tend to collect lost freight.
With people it’s more procedural. First, you get on the walkie-talkie and put out an APB. Dozens of people have walkie-talkies and there is a good chance that if your person is someone who tends to get behind microphones, at least half of those people with walkie-talkies know that person by sight. While you add all those eyes to your search, you are heading to the last place your person was, and you know where that is because you managed, by hook or by crook, to gain knowledge of their schedule leading up to the microphone moment the day before or days before.
Almost half of the time, I would find my person in route from the last place they were or still at the place they no longer should be, almost always deep in conversation and having forgotten the time… or the place in some cases. Then comes the diplomacy of moving someone along, sometimes just shy of a trot.
Maybe a third of the time someone with a walkie-talkie spots them and they are on their way, no worries.
If neither of these tactics pay off, things become a little indelicate. Between the place your person last was and where you want them to be there will be at least one restroom, outside of which you pause for a moment, hoping your walkie-talkie will crackle to life. If you and your person share gender, you enter, but only just, keeping an appropriate distance between you and their being otherwise engaged, and you speak their name with a question mark attached. If there is no answer, you try again, raising your voice just a smidge. If there is still no answer, you have done your duty. They are not in the restroom, or if they are, they do not wish to engage in an interaction, which is utterly understandable. If you do not share gender with your person, then you must wait for someone who does and request their assistance, an additional layer of humility.
Now, it should be pointed out that the restroom check is optional relative to your temperament and sense of decorum and can be skipped in all but the most significant cases, such as a featured or keynote speaker. When your person is the reason for the room, the main attraction, then the restroom check is obligatory. You must gain some sense of the circumstances, some estimate of the delay so your cohorts back at the room can choreograph the stall, which is a topic unto itself.
On only one occasion have I had to engage in an actual conversation inside a restroom that included discussion of an ETA.
If the restroom proves fruitless, you head back to the room and perhaps 10% of the time arrive to find your person ready to take the stage or, sometimes, actually taking it as you walk in all red faced and sweaty.
Among the remaining experiences, a good portion are just a wide variety of being unavailable, everything from forgetting about the obligation and going back to the hotel, to emergencies of all types. In these cases, for introductions and presentations, you go to the bullpen. If you’re worth your salt, you have a small group of people you can grab in a pinch to do the thing. I always had a few people I could go to, even with only a few minutes’ notice, and ask them pinch hit. I know I’m mixing up my baseball metaphors, but you understand. I have had this almost-exact conversation, more than once:
“I need you to introduce the guy.”
“Really? Okay. How much time do I have?”
“You need to stand up right now and walk on stage.”
Finally, there are the small number of times that I found my person by chance or unexpectedly under unexpected circumstances when the obligation has slipped their mind. More than once I found someone with a drink in their hand. One time I found someone as they were stepping into a taxi. One time I found someone on an oddly secluded balcony smoking a joint.
But the memory that brought all of this to mind today was not a memory of someone I had to find. It was a memory of someone who was in place and ready early. He was not comfortable on stage but his company was sponsoring the keynote and he had been designated to introduce the keynote. He was very nervous as we sat together waiting for things to get started. He asked me a lot of questions about how he should do this and how he should do that, and then he asked me some of the same questions again. I will venture outside my own comfort zone to give you a little advice about talking to somebody with stage fright. In the movies and on TV, when a character has stage fright, they always have someone telling them to think of the audience in their underwear of some other thing about how to think or what to do while they are on stage. Well, that’s all baloney for sure.
This nervous guy worked for a company that had had some recent success that everyone was talking about, so that was the topic of conversation. I can’t even remember the news but I remember asking him questions and the more he talked about the success of his company the less nervous he was. Then, just before he went on stage, I thanked him for being early and ready and I told him the story about finding someone who was supposed to be presenting an award, smoking pot on a balcony. I named names. I did. He started laughing and he was still laughing when he reached the microphone. He did better than fine.
I was reminded of this today as I was reminded of the fact that I am very good at a long list of small but momentous moments and if you ask me for my strengths and weaknesses, well, that’s probably going to be my answer.