This is a story about why I do what I do. Looking back, there are many stepping stones that led to my passion for public speaking.
This is an early “stone.”
The year was 1999.
The Back Story: My ‘Failed It’ Feeling
I worked at BBDO Chicago after graduation from Saint Mary’s College. My client was Bayer, and I was in Account Service. My boss gave me an assignment, which was to assemble a competitive review (read: enormous Power Point deck) for the clients. They were about to launch a new product, Aleve Cold & Sinus, and they wanted a snapshot of the landscape they were entering.
So I did what every red-blooded early-career professional would do. I procrastinated. In fact, I procrastinated for so long that they had to move the presentation date back. Before long, I was called into the EVP’s office for a talking-to.
“Cindy, what’s going on? Why haven’t you started this?” Anne asked. (Anne was known for being pretty tough on employees. Many often left in tears.)
I came clean. “Anne, I’m sorry. I just don’t know where to start. It’s such a huge project and I’ve never done anything like it before.”
Then she said something I’ll never forget.
“Cindy, just get it 50% there. Can you do that? Just get it back to me 50% there and we’ll do the rest together.”
Umm… fifty percent? Yep, I can do that. I mean, I was an “A” student, so that’s basically … an “F.” I can do an F!
The Turning Point
Boy, do I remember the walk back down the hallway to my cubicle. I changed on a dime. I thought to myself, “Whatever, Cindy. You can do more than 50%. You give this 110%! It’s time to get ‘er done.”
BBDO Chicago was in the Wrigley Building at that time, on Michigan Avenue. I came into the office all day Saturday and all day Sunday to review tapes of competitors and scour their messaging to determine their mission, target customers, core messaging and pricing. I poured myself into those cold/allergy, sinus/flu medications and by Sunday night, I knew them inside out.
An Ace in the Hole
Sunday night I went home to my apartment. It happened to be Oscar night. Exhausted, I flipped on the TV with my roommates.
Something weird happened.
This commercial came on, and it was wayyyy longer than 30 seconds. It was over a minute! That’s not normal.
Then, all these teeny tiny words started to scroll quickly at the bottom 1/3 of the screen. All sorts of warnings about the medication.
It was an Allegra commercial – an allergy medication. A prescription allergy medication.
And that was a moment that changed so much for me. That moment – that Allegra commercial – it actually impacted my career.
First, it helped me shine in front of Bayer management when I presented the competitive review.
Second, it led to my in-depth study of the rhetorical devices prescription drug advertisers relied on, my graduate school thesis.
See, that year, the FDA gave prescription drug companies the go-ahead to advertise directly to consumers. Because their budgets were 5x over brands like Bayer and Tylenol, this would totally change the landscape for over-the-counter brands.
Bayer needed to know this was coming and see the data. So in went part 5 of my presentation, and an “Ace in the Hole.”
The conference room felt enormous, and I stood in front of a wall-sized projection screen. Wearing a suit and heels, I scanned my audience of 100+ predominantly male managers. Bayer was a multi-billion dollar global company headquartered in New Jersey.
I was one of 5 women in the room, and the only speaker on the agenda.
The technology was working, the microphone was hooked up, and my boss sat in the front row. There were 75 slides. It would take an hour to present. I had to pause and explain at graphs, point at pie chart colors, emphasize and deliver actionable insights.
I’d been informed with a smile that depending on my performance, a promotion could follow.
How did I feel at that moment?
This may sound bizarre, but I was absolutely pumped.
On the one hand I was excited … and on the other hand I couldn’t wait for it to be over. But I was ready to nail this talk.
I had immersed myself in the project. I’d rehearsed so many times, I could give the talk in my sleep. I’d analyzed the competitors to death. I’d memorized their data. No one in the room knew this material better.
And I had that ace in the hole insight. I presented to the crowded room, completely energized by the audience and in total command of my material. I had fun. I knew my stuff. I was “on.”
Afterwards, my boss smiled, “You nailed it,” she said.
And I could feel it. There’s almost no better feeling. It’s true: When you finish a presentation and you know you excelled, exceeded the expectations – you feel on top of the world. You’ve hit the bulls-eye.
That “on top of the world” feeling?
That’s why I do what I do.
In every coaching session, that’s the feeling I’m after for my clients. I want them to be in complete control of their material. To feel nervous, yet excited. I want them to experience the feeling that their message hit the bulls-eye and what it takes to create it. I want them to acquire tools so they can achieve that feeling again and again.
A few weeks later, I was invited to be a member of the new business pitch team for the agency’s first “dot-com” client. I eagerly accepted and pitched in a room full of executives twice my age. It was thrilling. We did win our first dot-com account that day, and I lead the account team.
So What about You?
Don’t let public speaking opportunities pass you by. Grab hold of them. Get out there this year and nail that talk. Engage the investors in the room, the panel at the conference, your boss in the front row.
I want you to have that “on top of the world” feeling. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that everyone has a “next level” when it comes to public speaking. The question is, what’s yours?
Cindy provides expert public speaking coaching and brand consulting to small and medium-sized businesses who seek to master their message on stage, online and in publications.
Her passion for crafting, analyzing and presenting messages developed through over 25 years in the corporate, academic and entrepreneurial worlds. Cindy coaches clients on pitch decks, TED talks, storytelling, presentation presence, brand messaging, PR strategy and more.