I’m a fan of Aaron Sorkin. When talking about excellence in writing dramatic dialogue, he praises what he sees as the critical elements of obstacle and intention.
I expect he would enjoy how those elements played out in this story and appreciate I was the obstacle standing there, the sole obstacle blocking one man’s intention. Or perhaps everyone’s.
This little story is about when I got invited to do an inspirational 20-minute talk to a fresh audience on any subject I wanted. Aside from enjoying the sound of our own voice, having something valuable to say isn’t doing any good without an audience to present those ideas …
Who would turn that down?
I eagerly accepted, inquired about the group to understand what subject matter or focus might be appropriate and of value for them, and then set about developing and rehearsing my talk.
That invitation came via a Toastmasters connection. The audience (seniors, I was told) was an every weekday morning walking group. They (not all the same individuals, obviously) had been walking for 25+ years; beyond exercise, an outing for socializing, walking on steady footing indoors regardless of the weather year-round in their local mall.
Good for their health and good too for mall merchants, I expect. In any case, the invitation came from a contact of one of their members who wanted to find a speaker; a monthly coffee/cake party for members celebrating birthdays held in the mall activity room. Coffee was brewing; the cake was pre-cut, ready for serving after my talk.
Experience proved it’s better to talk after they eat!
I arrived early on walk-coffee/cake day, well-rested and prepared to deliver my appropriate and uplifting talk. I’d rehearsed well, had notes in my pocket if needed. I was ready. My subject, title, and parties’ names are long forgotten, but one thing stands proud above the fuzzy recollections in my mind – a comment from one of the members.
Everybody rambles a bit – me too, but Toastmasters taught me the discipline to stay within my allotted time, rehearse and budget my time to leave time for laughter pauses, pauses for effect, and ad-lib remarks. My rehearsal was well under my allotted 20 minutes, but no rehearsal could prepare me for what happened midway through the talk.
There I was, my ready group of eager listeners; I was introduced and began speaking, making eye contact with my audience to be inclusive and to confirm my audience was engaged. They were. As I looked around that room, one man stood out. He looked anxious, and I noticed him checking his watch several times.
I was mid-way into my talk when he spoke up, not to heckle, but clearly to interrupt. He explained he had a doctor’s appointment but didn’t want to miss the cake and coffee he’d paid for, so could I please stop talking – delivering his wish this way, “My doctor won’t wait!”
The room exploded with laughter, and the rest of my speech never happened – because what mattered most was that one man needed to have his cake and eat it too.
Kind folks came by to shake hands and thank me for coming. Not one of them asked what the second half of the speech was about or commented on the first half, so apparently, everyone was focused on their piece of cake, and I was simply the obstacle between them and their cake.
My lesson was that day, as much as I like to talk and happily accept invitations to speak, it’s essential to know your audience, what they feel they want/need, and appreciate they have a busy life and full agenda – and their desires are necessary for them, and essential for me to have recognized.
Their reality was not suspended while being talked to, inspired or motivated – it was building from an annoyance into an obstacle – a lesson I would learn that day, not metaphorically, but laughably. Not humiliating, but in different situations, this kind of disconnect is undoubtedly an obstacle I desire not to encounter …
As any audience needs, that day, my audience needed to be understood, listened to and respected – something we miss too easily and at our peril. Politicians, for example, fail in this disconnect all the time, where they don’t understand what people want because they are too busy talking about what matters to them rather than asking questions ~ we need to shut up and listen, and sometimes, just to shut up.
The guest speaker in this story was not icing on the cake but rather an obstacle delaying access to their cake. It’s a lesson I need to be reminded of from time to time, and the image of that white-haired man is as vivid now as the day I met him.
And the man who needed his cake came by, shook my hand and thanked me for winding up so he could attend his doctor’s appointment on time. At that moment, I learned my speech accomplished something meaningful but completely unexpected. I got a kind of feedback speakers rarely get, but I think we need it sometimes; the message of, thank you for not talking any longer – so we can get where we are going on time!
And, if there is a moral or message in this story, it is that we don’t know what obstacles stand between people we deal with and what they want – so we need to get better at understanding obstacles and adroitly get out of their way.
This is not a parable about old people; it’s about people. Most of us don’t speak out loud about what we want or what we see standing in our path, but we are determined to find our way under, over, through or around those obstacles. Or, as someone famous once said, let them eat cake.
P.S.: let them eat cake, translated to Latin: comedant crustulam