Facing our deepest, darkest dread

Fundraising and the purgatory that is public speaking. Particularly when it goes wrong.

This feature is somewhat longer than most, though as you’ll see, there is a reason. All this happened a few years ago, yet the memory of it is etched so painfully upon my mind that I fear now I’ll never forget it, however hard I try. So, I should aim to learn from it.

My five sessions at this year’s FIA National Convention in Melbourne went quite well. Mostly I was presenting in the cavernous main hall where capacity wasn’t an issue, but one of my favourite sessions was allocated a side room, which soon filled up and had people flowing out into the corridor as well as sitting on the floor and standing at the back. Some people were even turned away.

It’s mean of me, I know, but I was secretly delighted to see these delegates thus disappointed. Delegates who don’t get in are the ones who are really, really impressed, far more so than all those who get inside only to leave 60 minutes later muttering ‘Was that it?’

Anyway I feel I’m entitled to extract whatever joy I can from the process. Most people feel as bad as I do about the prospect of public speaking and this is a major issue for fundraisers as it’s something we have to do a lot.

Survey after survey indicates that the majority of us rate speaking in public as significantly less appealing than being slowly roasted over an open fire or having to sit through an evening of garage music.

I’m not in the least surprised. Slow and agonising death is an altogether mild description of my most dire public speaking experience. See if you think I exaggerate.

The speaking event from Hell
My worst seminar ever, so bad my skin crawls at the mere thought of it, was some years ago in Sydney, biggest and bustliest of the Aussie cities. Sydney was the first stop on a four-city tour of that splendid country then, as recently, at the invitation of the Fundraising Institute of Australia. All the people at FIA have since changed, so I feel the story can now be told.

I was booked to address the Sydney Chapter of FIA for one hour on the Friday on the subject of relationship fundraising, as then unheard of in that hemisphere (this was, as I say, a few years ago). I was the last speaker of the afternoon. My contact person prior to the event had ominously changed jobs just before I arrived (I think she knew something I didn’t) but the lucky lady drafted in at the last minute to assist me greeted my every question with that typically optimistic Aussie response, ‘No worries mate’.

I got to the venue, a Salvation Army hall, just before tea break, as the preceding speaker was winding up. It seemed inappropriate for me to go in just as he was ending so I waited outside. I had to briefly share a kind of antechamber with about six other assorted humans. They too seemed to be under an immediate sentence, possessing the air of people who had long since abandoned hope. I concluded they were Sally Army regulars temporarily denied entry to what was presumably, on normal days, their bedroom. We glared at each other until a smattering of desultory applause from next door indicated that tea break could commence. I felt sick and lonely. But in I went.

Like it or not, at some time, it’s something that we all have to do.

Reasonable requests, unreasonable outcomes
My fairly standard and quite reasonable advance requests had included a carousel slide projector with remote control, a screen everyone could see, and a video projector. All greeted with the somewhat less than reassuring ‘No worries’ from my willing helper.

The room I entered was painfully long and thin, and whoever had set it up had never organised such an event before. About 60 chairs were arranged in three rows across the room so the folk at either end would have no chance of seeing the minute screen.

In the middle of the first row sat a tiny slide projector on a chair. It was one of those tray-based contraptions, a projector designed for an audience of no more than ten. My heart sank. My slides (this was before PowerPoint) were in a carousel, but this machine worked from a tray, with it’s own peculiarities of upside down and back-to-front positioning for the slides. Just as the audience were urged to finish tea and retake their seats I hurriedly began to transfer my slides to the tray. A nervous-looking woman seated next to the machine smiled shyly as I fussed around. I smiled weakly back. As I shuffled in my slides — bitterly complaining to myself all the while — I was vaguely aware that I was being introduced, as next speaker, to the by now seated and eagerly expectant audience.

I remember being struck by the fact that my hostess seemed to know absolutely nothing about me. As I was turning with my laden tray of slides in hand she said, ‘so here, ladies and gentlemen, is Keith Barnett,’ then someone – to this day I’ve no idea who – stretched the lead for the remote behind me.  As I turned I tripped over it and literally went flying, demolishing five empty seats in front of me. My tray of slides flew into the air and its contents cascaded around my prostrate figure.

Half of the audience assumed I’d done this deliberately (Australians often think the Brits are a nation of John Cleeses) so I did get some applause which only temporarily eased my pain and my even more bruised pride. I struggled to my feet and mumbled thanks for my warm introduction and how this was my first trip in Australia. The same half of the audience got the joke and tittered but the others groaned. I knew I was going to have trouble.

Hastily I gathered up my (unnumbered) slides from the floor and tried to assemble them into some kind of order. Desperately playing for time and feeling restlessness grow around me like a wave, I switched on the projector and nodded to the nervous woman to advance the first slide (the remote simply didn’t reach to where I had to stand).

She pressed the button and the slides clacked like a machine gun, one following the other in rapid succession until the entire slide show was over in less time than it takes to tell of it.

I was gob-smacked. I would have laughed, nervously I admit, but my audience didn’t seem to see anything funny. I explained that I had intended to pause, really I had, between each slide to make particular points. Some of the faces in the crowd clearly shared my pain.

Sticky palms, dry throat, weak knees, pounding heart. The moment has come.

One bright spark in the audience had the idea of switching off the motor for the projector, leaving on the lamp, and operating the infernal machine by hand. Drowning in my audience’s growing impatience I clutched at this like a straw. The task of manually changing slides fell to my nervous friend. And I then realised she had some kind of physical impairment that rendered her incapable of coordinated action. She simply could not operate the sliding arm.

I decided to abandon the slides altogether (just 90 per cent of my act, after all) and turned in desperation to the video player. At that moment enter Alf from maintenance, clad in overalls and brandishing a screwdriver. Ignoring me and using language quite unsuited to the Salvation Army he proceeded to explain generally to the room that he’d been called to fix the projector even though that apparently wasn’t normally his job, not by any stretch of the imagination. The projector drew the worst of Alf’s adjectives followed by me for apparently ‘buggering the bloody thing up’. I decided to ignore Alf and focus on the video. I had a couple of short but powerful, amusing film clips with me that would distract my audience’s attention and which I could embroider with anecdotes for half an hour at least.

With hindsight there was a funny side I suppose, but instead of laughter or sympathy the expressions that confronted me ranged from curiosity through disbelief to consternation. I sensed that in some places patience was running out, so while Alf foostered in the middle of the room with his screwdriver I mumbled a hasty introduction and in desperation switched on the video, swept in the tape and pushed the button marked play.


It didn’t work. Zilch. Not a flicker. I pressed again. Still nothing. People at the back began, in embarrassment, to leave. I fell to pressing continuously on that useless button. Still, not a flicker of video. Had there been a young tree handy I would have used it to administer a sound thrashing on that useless video player. Now I really was losing my audience. Utterly paranoid, beyond desperate, a small light in a corner of my brain reminded me that I still had one trick left, a final card I could, literally, pull out of my bag to save the remnants of the day. This was a very dramatic and unusual mailing pack, an award winner for the English charity Ryton Gardens (see SOFII) that folded down from one huge sheet of special brown paper which, once read, could be torn and folded in such a way as to be re-used as seed pots in the recipient’s garden.

I began the story as if my life depended on it. Before long attention and even interest appeared to be returning to what was left of my audience. I told them how the mailing had been conceived and created. I laid on thick the organic gardener’s resistance to junk mail and this organisation’s desire to find something its donors would applaud rather than instantly bin. Warming to my task I built my audience’s anticipation up to the crucial moment when I proceeded to unfold the sheet, to open it out to show its full creative splendour.

Kill me now, and get it over with, why don’t you?

But I couldn’t. The wretched pages were glued together! I later found out that the pack in my bag was a display copy, its pages having been spray mounted together for an exhibition. No matter how I tried, it wouldn’t be opened.

I died. At that awful moment of undelivered climax my knees gave way and I fell to the floor. I remember looking pleadingly skyward and demanding ‘Beam me up Scottie’ as the room collapsed in confusion and disarray.

Peter Fortune, a man who later became my firm friend but who I’d never clapped eyes on before that awful day, picked me up from where I’d crumpled in a heap on the floor. Peter works for the Spastic Centre of New South Wales and has cerebral palsy himself. Although mild, it shows. Peter speaks with passion but with difficulty. I’ll never forget the first shaky words I heard from this five feet four giant towering above me. ‘Jeeesh mate’ he exclaimed, ‘I thought I’d got problems – but you take the f***in’ biscuit!’

What I’ve learned from this experience is:
• Don’t believe optimists.
• Never think ‘Well, it could be worse.’ It will be.
• Check the equipment yourself at least a day before. Take your own if possible.
• Worry. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not your friend.
• However badly things go, something good will come along at the end.

A happy ending
This story has a corollary. Peter, despite his cerebral palsy, is a motivational speaker. The following year, at my suggestion, he was invited to give the keynote speech at the UK Institute of Fundraising’s annual convention, before about 700 hard-to-please fundraisers.

I had to introduce him, and I was very nervous. He was calm as a rock. I told the story of how I had met Peter, and got a huge laugh. Peter told about his childhood growing up with cerebral palsy, and got a seven-minute standing ovation.

Beaming with pride I felt that the experience almost made my catastrophe in Sydney worth enduring.



This story first appeared in Contributions Magazine in 2002.

This blog post is part of a series where Ken Burnett takes us back into his own blog archive to share his best timeless posts. These gems are hand-picked by Ken himself.

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