When to Say No! (and Why)

As a keynote speaker, sometimes people ask me, “Do you ever bomb?”

Yes, once in a while. But even the worst experience, with a little time lapse, can become funny, and always a learning experience. Once I spoke for a group of men who worked in a gravel quarry. I told the organizers, “No, I don’t think this is my kind of audience,” but they were insistent. Finally, I gave in and said “yes.” (I admit to this defect in my character: when clients keep begging me to take their money I can only refuse for so long!)

How bad could it be? I rationalized. I went early, set up the environment, changed the lighting, schmoozed with everyone. I’m not saying they weren’t nice, hard working, tax paying Americans, but it looked as if their friends had given them subscriptions to the Tattoo of the Month Club. Fortunately, there were a few wives. One woman, very thin, sat in the front row. “Ah, she must have heard of me,” I thought. So I asked her if she liked speakers. “Oh, no,” she said, “My husband is a bit deaf, so we have to sit close up.

So I kept schmoozing, especially with their shop steward and a man they called “The Preacher.” When I met their president, I asked him why I was being paid so much money for just a fifteen-minute speech. He replied that honestly he didn’t think I could keep their attention for more than fifteen minutes. “Boy,” I thought, “this man hasn’t seen me Frippnotize a crowd!” Then I started speaking. It was horrible!

No one in the room stopped chatting with their neighbors. I learned that any time you have an hour-long open bar for a blue-collar audience before a speech, your chances of success plummet.

After my speech, awards were given out. I couldn’t slip away because my handbag was up front. The first recipient was the hard-of-hearing man who told the owner of the company, “I haven’t always agreed with you guys, but ………” Sorry —I really CAN’T tell you. The second award winner was the shop steward who said, “I don’t know why you bring in these motivational speakers. We’re all motivated enough to turn up at work every day.” Finally came the “preacher.” He said, “Most of you weren’t listenin’ to Patricia. You should have done because she was very good. Now, I have 12 points to make…” His speech was longer than mine.

From the car I called my friend Susan RoAne. “It was awful!” I moaned. “Should I send their money back?”

Susan’s reply: “You were fine. They failed. You suffered. Keep the money.”

MORAL of the story: as the late, great Bill Gove said, “You are responsible TO your audience, not FOR your audience.”

So, YES do take MOST of the opportunities you can to speak. But learn to discipline yourself not to take all the money offered. Say “no” based on your own past experiences—and mine.