I once had the chance to give a speech in Rome. It was almost a disaster — even if nobody in the room noticed.
The client was a large industrial company in Europe. The venue was one of Rome’s fanciest hotels. The audience were a couple dozen senior executives at customers of the industrial client. I was speaking about social media, as I did all over the world at that time, and the other speakers were speaking on everything from how to interact with others emotionally to the new world of media and innovation.
It was, in other words, a junket — an event put on for a few important people to entertain them, give them a holiday in a fascinating city, and expose them to new ideas. Everyone was pretty relaxed. And I knew my speech extremely well, since I’d already given it 100 times in many different places.
Everyone else stayed in the fancy hotel. But I had another speech elsewhere in Italy the following week so I booked an apartment with Rentvillas.com (which was Airbnb before Airbnb existed). The apartment allowed me to have place to stay, eat breakfast, do laundry, and use as a base of operations at a price that I could put on my expense report (neither my company’s accounting department nor the industrial client would spring for six nights in the fancy hotel).
The apartment was about a 30 minute walk from the hotel.
On the morning of the speech, I put on my best dress shoes, suit, and tie (yes, people used to wear ties to give speeches) and walked through the crowded, hot streets of a popular part of Rome to the hotel.
About 20 minutes into the walk, a pigeon shat on me from far above.
This was a very talented pigeon as far as its aim was concerned. In one poo, it managed to hit the lapel of my suit jacket, my shirt, my tie, and my suit pants.
Naturally, I was quite upset.
After taking stock of my appearance, I determined that the tie was a goner. The shirt could probably be cleaned up. The suit was going to be a problem, but I did not have time to go back to my apartment, and there was no appropriate substitute clothing there in any case.
As I learned much earlier in my career, panic is not a useful problem-solving strategy. I took off the tie. I continued walking in the direction of the hotel. And lo and behold, I passed a very nice Roman boutique for men’s clothes. I bought a very nice tie for about 50 euros.
I arrived at the hotel about 15 minutes before the speech, tie in hand. I alerted the people running the event. After a brief discussion, I ducked the hotel bathroom and using paper towels, did my best to remove the stain from the shirt, suit jacket, and pants. From some angles, you couldn’t tell there was a problem. And the stains on the shirt and the pants were hidden by the jacket.
I put on the new tie and strode into the room with as much dignity as I could muster. I shook the host’s hand and smiled and did my best to project a confidence I didn’t actually have at that moment.
When they introduced me, I gave the speech. And a funny thing happened. The speech was so automatic and polished by that point that it just worked. The audience responded. The jokes landed. I entered the zone — all speakers know the zone — and did a fine job. I shook people’s hands afterwards and listened to the other speakers with interest.
Later in the day, I got to know one of the other speakers, who was also American. We shared several interests and hit it off quickly, and we agreed to join up to walk around Rome and see some sights the following day. He invited me to his hotel room, which was lavish, including a gleaming bathroom and a staircase to a second level. It was a lot nicer than my ratty apartment. That’s the kind of room where I would have stayed if I’d only been staying for a day or two — and of course I would have avoided the dangerous pigeon-laden walk through the streets of Rome.
“Did you notice the stain on my suit?” I asked him.
“What stain?” he responded.
I know it was there. You can see it if you look at photos of the event, although it’s just a smudge, not easily identifiable as a mark left by a sharpshooting pigeon.
I’m not sure what the lesson here is, although there must surely be one. Perhaps it is that if you have something valuable to say and you are sure of the talent you have to say it, people will listen. What happens on the walk to the hotel isn’t going to be a problem unless you make it a problem. If you are in Rome to give a speech — or wherever to do whatever you are a good at — just do what you know you are good at. People will notice your skill, not the smudge on your lapel.
I don’t fit into the suit any more. But I still have the tie. It’s a really nice tie, and it always makes me think about the pigeon.
I wonder how the rest of its day went?
Note: This blog is without bullshit . . . but I never made any promises about pigeon shit.