It's super-easy to tell stories of success and how everything went from good to great
But what about the events when you had to eat humble pie? Or the times when you were scared out of your mind? Here are three stories which by some coincidence involve presentations.
Nonetheless, there's a solid lesson behind each story and it's well learning from.
In this episode Sean talks about
Story 1: The One Person “Australian” Workshop
Story 2: The Insurance Company Speech
Story 3: The Bouncy Boat Cruise
Imagine your website has just gone live and the next thing you know, you’re on a radio show.
That’s exactly what happened to me one week in June 2001. After weeks of hard work and lots of back and forth, my website had gone live. By today’s standards it wasn’t a very flashy website. It had tiny fonts and was extremely spartan, but finally it was up and running.
That very afternoon, I was at a store when I ran into the presenters of a popular radio show. They asked me a few questions and then asked me what I did. At the end of the question set they announced my website on air.
I was excited beyond belief
I called my webmaster, Chris Parkinson, and told him to expect loads of traffic.
You know what happened next, right?
Yes, nothing. No one showed up to the site despite the popularity of the show. My excitement turned to disappointment as the hours ticked by. But what was I expecting? I’ll tell you what I was expecting. I was expecting a “miracle moment”. And I learned that events don’t always roll out the way you’ve planned. Which is why this series is about the startup stories we’ve experienced at Psychotactics.
They’re a series that give you an understanding of how we went about our early days. How we didn’t just sit behind our computer and hope that clients would sign up. It wasn’t just about starting a blog or putting a website. There are stories that I haven’t quite told before.
These are three of the stories: Three startup stories from the early days at Psychotactics.
Story No.1: The One Person “Australian” Workshop
In 2004, we did something quite bold.
We’d been in business for just a year and eight months when we decided to have a workshop in Los Angeles.
That workshop, priced at $1500 per person sold out.
Which prompted us to have our second workshop closer to home.
When a client suggested we have a workshop in Australia, we jumped at the opportunity and the deal for this workshop seemed almost too good to be true. This client wasn’t asking us to do all the promotion. Instead he was going to get over 60 people to attend our two-day event and all we needed to do was show up.
Workshops are notoriously hard to fill at any point in time
When you start marketing a workshop you get a few early sign-ups and then it gets deathly quiet for a long time. Finally, as the final date approaches, you get another spurt of sign-up activity which usually fills the remaining seats. For this particular workshop, we hadn’t got any early sign-ups, and even though that was a worry, we weren’t terribly concerned. After all, the client was going to get those 60 people to attend. Even if just half of them showed up, we’d still have a sizeable number of attendees.
Even so a uneasy calm set in
The e-mails from the client weren’t encouraging. He kept bringing up stories of local disasters. There was a drought in the area, a big fire in the city—things that seemingly had no bearing on the workshop. When we didn’t react to the doom and gloom, he sent us more e-mails. The numbers receded from 60 to 30, then from 30 to 10.
It was too late for us to change our minds
We’d already committed to the workshop and we decided to go ahead anyway. When the client knew we were determined to go ahead, he decided to book a venue and some accommodation nearby. And here’s the interesting bit: We just knew the workshop was in Victoria somewhere and assumed it would be in a big city like Melbourne.
Imagine our horror when we were driven over 116 km to a little town called Hepburn Springs
We must have been naïve at the time anyway, because it never occurred to use to ask where the workshop was being held. Our workshop at Los Angeles had been so successful that it didn’t cross our minds that anything could go wrong. Yet here were with no clue as to who was going to turn up to the event and not even a faint idea about the venue.
Which is when we got our next shock
The venue was a bed and breakfast with what seemed to be a billiards room. There in the middle of the room was—as you’d expect—a billiards table and I was somehow supposed to present with that monstrosity right in the room. I asked if the table could be moved. The owner grinned and said, “That table hasn’t moved in a hundred years, and it’s not going to move now”. The only option we had was to put a big sheet over the table and chairs around it as it if were a conference table of some kind.
But the surprises didn’t stop at the venue and the table
On the day of the event, two people turned up: the client and his non-paying friend, called Margaret. Nonetheless, we were there to do a workshop and if one person turned up, the workshop would go ahead. As we always do, we started on time at 8:32 am. Then, at 8:45 the doors burst open and another participant showed up. Yup, it was our first paid participant and one who’d seen the announcement of the workshop on our e-mail newsletter and decided to come to the workshop.
We were going to recover some of our costs after all.
However, this paying participant was no ordinary participant
She happened to be the General Manager of a $500 million company that was located in Melbourne. In the break she spoke to me and expressed her surprise at the lack of attendees, but also expressed her admiration. “I was amazed that with just two people in the room, you started right on time”.
Over the next two days we went through the elements of The Brain Audit workshop and by the end of the workshop we had a bit of a reward. The GM wanted us to come and present to her company while we were still in Victoria and she was willing to pay us for the trouble.
And so, we broke even
We could have given up at the stage when the client was sending his depressing e-mail reports. Instead we decided to persevere and yes we had a happy ending, but what are the lessons?
Three lessons here:
Lesson 1: Duds are part of the game
The reason I’m relating this story to you is because I see so many people today who want to start a business, but they want to be successful in a very short time—and preferably with no downsides.
If you’re starting up a business today, how many duds are you willing to embrace? The biggest reason why I see businesses failing is because they don’t want to fail. They play safe. They want clients to come to them via a blog or website. They don’t want to go out on a limb and fail a bit. Failing isn’t a nice feeling but it teaches you a great lesson. And sometimes, like we did, you get lucky.
Lesson 2: Cover your costs
We bought our plane tickets and paid for the venue before we had enough information. We trusted that things would work out in the end and it didn’t. Since then if we’ve had a workshop that involves costs (and they all do), we make a temporary booking of the venue.
Until we sign up at least a few clients, we don’t book or buy anything. We’ve never made a loss on an event, but we came terribly close with this Hepburn workshop. It taught us to pre-sell and then commit to an event. We use the same concept for our product launches. We pre-sell and only once we have sign-ups do we create the product.
Lesson 3: Work your own contacts
When we started out, we didn’t have much of a list. We built that list though writing really good articles. Not just your run of the mill articles, but insightful, funny articles.
Despite the presence of a list, we didn’t have many names from Australia. And we decided to work with the client who’d promised to get 60 participants. That was obviously a mistake. When you give away that much amount of control, you don’t know for sure how things are going to work out. In the end we had no control of the venue, the participants and were stuck with a billiards table in the middle of the room.
But that trip to Australia was only one of our early adventures. The second scary one was definitely the insurance company speech.
Story 2: The Insurance Company Speech
I don’t remember how I got some of the early speaking assignments—or maybe I’m just trying to forget.
This early assignment was in Wellington where I was supposed to speak to a large group of insurance agents. The presentation was about The Brain Audit, but I tried valiantly to get case studies about the insurance business. I met with the client many times at their local office, I did my research and found many examples about the insurance industry.
And that’s where I made my first mistake.
Well, anyway, I flew to Wellington and started my presentation
As I got through the first 15 minutes or so, I realised the audience was not reacting the way I expected them to do so. Instead of being interested in the case studies, they seemed to be bringing up objections and interrupting my presentation. And rightly so. I was the outsider in the room. I didn't know squat about insurance and the insurance industry and there I was giving them case studies that left me open to attack.
That's when my second mistake became apparent
I was still very much a rookie at presenting so I took whatever advice I could get in that field. And one presenter told me never to use slides. He suggested that slides were like the kiss of death. As it turned out, slides would have saved me from going to pieces on that particular day. As the audience grew restless, I got extremely nervous on stage.
And then someone walked out
Who knows why they walked out. Maybe it was just to go to the toilet or to get a drink. But as my eye moved towards the exit, I could see the entire audience walking out in droves. And though no one else was walking out at that point, I couldn't focus and forgot what I had to say next. If I had slides, I could have used them as a guide and moved along. Maybe the presentation would have still been a disaster, but it would have been a lot better than a professional presenter standing on stage with his mouth open and his mind blank.
I still had twenty minutes to go and nothing came to mind, so I fled. I left the stage, went down the corridor and locked myself in the room until the taxi came to pick me up to the airport, later.
But that's not the end of the story
Three years later I was asked to speak at quite a different event, but at the very same venue, on the very same stage. To say I was mortified was putting it lightly. I could see myself forgetting what I had to say, and fleeing for the second time in a row. You know how it is when you're all wound up, don't you? You don't sleep very much at night and I counted every ambulance and police siren that roared by on the street as I lay high up in my hotel room.
Except I'd learned from my mistakes
The first mistake was trying to appeal to the audience. That wasn't a mistake I was going to make ever again. When you try to appeal to an audience of people in your industry, you have at least some authority to do so. But when you're facing an audience from another industry, it's like walking into the jaws of a steel trap and I'd had one experience and it was enough. I presented my information as is, and the audience drew their own conclusion.
The second mistake I'd made was to speak without slides
It may sound like a good idea, but if you've spent the previous night counting sirens, you're likely to be tired and prone to mistakes. That one event made sure I never left home without my slides. I'd even take a backup on an external drive and print out a sheet of the main points—just in case technology failed at the last minute.
But easily the biggest experience to draw upon was walking back on that stage. It was scary but I realised if I backed out I'd always fear that venue and stage. The venue wasn't the problem, it was the way I handled my presentation that caused all the trouble. Going back into that seeming danger zone made me more resilient than ever before.
Which takes us to the third story: the boat cruise.
Story 3: The Bouncy Boat Cruise
I'm not a big fan of “believing in the universe”.
I believe you need to put in the effort and you get the result. And yet I couldn't explain how I ended up on this cruise from New Zealand to Australia. At the start of the year I'd written my goals and one of the goals was to get on a cruise ship. But as I ploughed through the year no cruise ship had my name on it.
Then in May I had a meeting with a CEO of a bed franchise
“I'd like you to make a presentation at our annual event”, he said when I met him at his office. You know what's coming next, right? Yes, the annual event was on a cruise ship. As excited as I was about the “universe pitching in”, I still had a job to do. And the presentation wasn't bothering me too much because I'd just made many similar presentations in the months running up to the cruise.
The first night, as we sailed away, there were incredibly calm seas
But calm seas and the Tasman don't go together, especially in June. June is the start of winter in this part of the world and winter brings stormy seas. Added to that, the Tasman Sea is considered to be one of the roughest stretches of water. But we were in a good mood and we had bacon and eggs for breakfast. Oily bacon and buttery-eggs. And then all hell broke loose.
The ship started bouncing about like crazy
The bacon and eggs—well, let's just say you shouldn't eat oily stuff under normal conditions—but on this rough sea it was pure hara kiri. Renuka and I were not only sea sick, we were throwing up for a solid hour. And later that morning, I had to make my presentation. Somehow, Renuka staggered to the medical centre to buy some overpriced pills to quell the seasickness.
And then it was show time
Luckily the presentation was in the lower part of the liner which happened to be the most stable. But I was feeling terrible and had a hard time standing up, so I didn't get on stage. Instead I made the presentation from the bottom of the stage (at seat level) and held the stage for support. 45 minutes later I was done, and the CEO came up to continue the proceedings.
“You didn't look too well,” he said to me as we passed. “Did you drink a little too much last night?”
“No I didn't”, I informed him. I never drink the night before I have to make a presentation. What he didn't know of course, was that Renuka was responsible for that advice. She warned me to stay away from any alcohol the previous night, no matter how many free drinks were being offered. And so I stayed sober, which was a very good lesson in itself.
Often you're judged not by what you can do, but other people's perception of you.
If I had been drinking the pervious night, it wouldn't have mattered that I was sea-sick. My pale demeanour would have been attributed to the fact that I wasn't a professional. I've found this to be true with not just speaking engagements but in every area of my life.
When there's a course on, I don't tell clients what's happening in the background. If I have a workshop, I focus on the slides and not about any other issues. When you let your audience know that you have other issues, they automatically attribute some slip up to that issue, even though that issue may not be connected.
Oh, and that universe thing.
I still don't believe too much in it, but I write things down anyway.
I put in the effort and then it comes true.
Often in life we're waiting for that miracle moment. We are sure that if we simply put up the website, or start writing that blog, things will happen.
What I've found is a bit different. With the Australia one person workshop we found that persistence paid off, but it was less a story of persistence and more about learning how groundwork and preparation avoids failure. We still need to get out from our office. We still need to push ourselves into the unknown, but we can do so without taking nutty risks.
The Wellington presentation story was also one of willing to go beyond the computer screen. But it was also one of facing your demons and conquering them. Once I found that I could win that battle against fear, I feel comfortable taking on a scary situation time and time again.
Finally the boat cruise could have gone horribly wrong if Renuka wasn't around to give me advice. Her advice kept me in the good standing of the CEO. Perception is far greater than reality. And I've learned over the years to manage perception, because what people believe is what they feel to be true.
No one is saying you need to be fake or feed your audience what you think they should hear. I openly share what we do, where we've succeeded and where we've failed. But in the middle of an assignment, you need to focus on the assignment and keep any additional stories for later, much later.
That's it. Stories from the Psychotactics vault.