The Perils of Public Speaking
I have an old friend who is a journalist specialized in shipping. He was based in Hong Kong for many years, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of ships, shipping and related stuff.
Given Hong Kong’s traditional role in the 1970s as a gateway for much of China’s import-export trade and as a busy port city, there was great interest in Hong Kong in two big news stories in 1979: China’s Open Door and Reform. Policy, and the normalization of US-China Relations.
At the time I was committee chair of the China business committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, and responsible for finding good speakers for luncheon events.
Given the importance of shipping in the emerging story of China’s expanding trade with the world, I invited my expert friend, George, to give a luncheon talk to the committee.
He did not want to accept at first, because he had never given a speech. Eventually I persuaded him, in part because I thought the audience would probably be fairly small in size.
After he agreed to give the talk, a date was scheduled, and a flyer was sent to members of the Chamber announcing the event, which was to be held in the old Hilton Hotel in Hong Kong’s Central District, located next to the old cricket club (now Chater Garden) on the site of what is now the Cheung Kong Centre.
Following the big headline news that year, sign-up numbers for the luncheon went far beyond my original expectation, with nearly one hundred people reserving spots.
News of such a large crowd gave George a serious case of the jitters. He began to have second thoughts about the whole thing, and made noises about wiggling out of the speech commitment.
I eventually persuaded him not to cancel, reassuring him that he would do fine. Plans went ahead.
Little did I know that Murphy’s Law was poised to pounce and prove my calming reassurances to be misguided.
This was long before the era of powerpoint presentations, which have become a crutch which many speakers and presenters rely on too heavily nowadays. George typed up his comments on A4 paper, and put them in the pocket of his suit.
Although the occasion called for him to wear a suit and tie, suits were not normally required dress for a shipping journalist. He obligingly pulled an old suit out of mothballs and wore it that morning.
On the morning of the luncheon, he made his way to Central by ferry from his home in Cheung Chau, and then jumped into a taxi. At that moment, the seat of his pants split wide open.
This was not a minor split in his pants, but a major one. There was a gaping hole from top to bottom which left his underwear in full view from the back side.
The timing and the impact on George’s spirits were of course terrible. He had already been feeling anxious as the time of the speech approached. Now he was on the verge of panic.
His quick-thinking response was to go straight to a tailor shop operated by a mutual friend, and get his pants sewn up. He sat in the changing room while the tailor sewed up the seat of his pants.
From there he went to the Hilton Hotel. I had arrived there early to check arrangements. Not yet knowing about the seat splitting incident, I saw George slip quietly into the bar of the hotel, opposite the function room where the luncheon was about to be held. No doubt he was hoping a martini or two might calm his nerves before the big event.
The room was set up with a long head table and speaker’s podium facing the 10 round tables where guests were being seated. The head table had several flower arrangements, large glass pitchers of ice water, and a microphone on a table-top stand.
Into the room walked George. He told me about the pants incident. I assured him he looked fine and tried to keep him calm and relaxed as we chatted with some of the guests.
We sat down at the head table next to each other, and the waiters and waitresses began serving the meal. As we talked I assured him again that everything would be fine, his suit looked smart, etc. Superficially at least, he seemed to have recovered from the pants scare.
At the appointed time it was my duty to introduce George as the speaker. To keep things more informal, I decided to do this while sitting at the head table with George seated on my right hand side. George also planned to speak from the head table rather than the podium because he felt more relaxed that way.
As I reached for the microphone to begin the proceedings, it turned out that the electric cord of the mike had been placed under one of the flower arrangements. As I pulled the microphone over in front of me, the flower arrangement toppled over, knocking a large pitcher of ice water over.
Most unfortunately, the whole pitcher of ice cold water was dumped directly into George’s lap. George shot out of his seat like a kangaroo fleeing a bush fire.
Poor George. First the back of his pants was under attack, and now the front. And I, his good old friend, was the unwitting culprit behind the second attack, and the whole scenario.
I apologized profusely, of course, the waiter brought some towels, and George readied himself to begin the speech, albeit with a large damp zone around his waist.
And speak he did, for about 20 minutes, but the poor guy was by now so rattled that his presentation was rather clipped and stilted. He relaxed a bit by the time of the question and answer session, in which he shared some interesting expert insights.
And to his credit, he forgave me for putting him through this memorable ordeal. Therein lie both the power of friendship and the perils of public speaking.