Hazel McHaffie

Out of left field

Well, this was a first, and it taught me a useful lesson.

I’m a great believer in thorough preparation. Whatever the occasion. Could be a sign of insecurity … or obsessive tendencies … or whatever, I don’t know. But I need to feel in command of the situation, in order to relax into the actual event. When it comes to speaking appointments, I do my homework, try to be totally to grips with my material, have a clear structure and aim in my head, blend humour into serious material, and make sure I’m respecting the parameters of the commission. Even so, mishaps do happen. I remember once, years ago, being unable to use my slides at a big conference because the feet on their carousel had melted! Ever after I carried my own. And another occasion where a lady in the audience became unconscious and caused a major incident.  But this week a very different unexpected event came out of left field.

As part of Book Week Scotland, I’d been invited to our local library to talk about my writing life and latest publication. Our local librarians are lovely enthusiastic people, so thank you, I should enjoy doing that. I love the fact that libraries use my work in their bookclubs. And it should be a breeze – if I hadn’t got that information at my fingertips, I was in the wrong job! Well, it should have been …

First hiccup – a streaming cold out of the blue two days before it. I went into overdrive with medicaments and positive thinking, snatched sleep and distraction therapies. I’d protect my throat by keeping silent most of the day beforehand. I’d take the car to the library instead of irritating my fragile chest with cold air. So, when I stood up to speak, no one would have suspected the battle I’d had to reach that point.

Next hiccup – a mere five minutes in, the fire alarms started up. Speaking above that level of decibels would strain the hardiest of vocal chords! But the librarian indicated to continue, it’d just be a false alarm, and went out to investigate … only to return with the instruction the building was to be evacuated, the fire brigade were on their way. Freezing temperatures outside, chatting in the icy air … I could feel my raw throat and chest palpably tightening. It took a further twenty minutes for the fire crew to arrive, pin down the problem, and let us back in. Twenty minutes to outwardly respond to conversation with all those hardy souls prepared to wait and not abandon ship (all of them!), whilst inwardly revising the structure and content of my talk. Mercifully it was completely without notes or slides so there was no need to do anything physical, and since no one else knew what I’d planned to cover, they were quite unaware of the mental gymnastics to accommodate the changed time frame.

A salutary lesson for me: you can never be totally prepared for all eventualities; accept vicissitudes with good grace. And useful reinforcement of a piece of advice given to me very early on in my speaking career: ‘if you’re feeling out of your depth, at least look the part!’

 

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