Humiliation, Rat Poison and a Freight Train

Getting your point across and a few things to do and NOT DO if you’re following the Fulton County Rat Poison lady and a freight train rolls through…

Never Follow the Fulton County Rat Poison Lady

Never Follow the Fulton County Rat Poison Lady

Nearly fifteen years ago I was in charge of the launch of an ambitious, somewhat controversial, government funded housing program.  The program was designed to revitalize several Atlanta neighborhoods that had struggled long after forced “urban revitalization” had been inflicted upon them (via a major superhighway or two driven right through their homes).   We were doing multiple presentations each evening, and this was the fourth of the night. The dog and pony roadshows would continue for nearly two months, five shows a night at audiences around the city, held in community centers, schools and libraries. Most of the audiences were not delighted to see my team, suspecting that we, too, might be about to ram a superhighway through their homes.  My team and I held our breath before each meeting, never knowing what we’d encounter.

When I got to the meeting, I was informed I had only 3 minutes to deliver the entire message.  Checking the agenda, I realized that I was following a representative from the Fulton County Health department.  Her topic, which was eagerly followed by all present, was on how to get rid of rats that had been invading the neighborhood after a recent sewer problem.  As an added incentive, she had brought free samples of rat poison with her and would be distributing them at the end of the meeting.

As an animal lover, I wasn’t too keen on the whole “poison the rats” bit but hey, my opinion didn’t matter. My job was to be as non-confrontational as possible in all of my interactions with the public.  So I didn’t mention that I had kept mice as pets all through junior high and stood up to begin my speech.

As I took the stage I was once again reminded that I only had three minutes. I opened my mouth to begin the semi-reassuring spiel we had perfected when faced with hostile audiences. No sooner had I introduced myself than an incredibly loud freight train came roaring through.  Endlessly.  Complete with multiple horn blasts as it crossed two nearby intersections.

I glanced over at the time moderator. She pointed to her watch. Panicking, I promptly stuck foot in mouth. I mentioned I had grown up in NY (a BIG “no-no” in the Deep South), raised my voice and plowed through with my presentation, over the noise of the train. It was a close contest on decibel level but ultimately, I won. (We grow ‘em loud in NY!)

To say it went over like a lead balloon is an understatement. Out of the corner of my eye, as I was nearly trampled by the crowd eagerly pushing past me to get their rat poison samples, I saw a member of our board who had been in the audience gently shaking her head.  I knew I had failed.  Best of all, I had to climb back into my Geo Tracker and drive onto one more presentation. One more shot at disaster.

By 7 a.m. my boss had a voice mail from the board member who had been in the audience. Fortunately my message explaining what had gone wrong was lobbed in at 11:57 the night before.  And after a short, red-faced discussion with my boss, (who fortunately had been to many similar meetings before and probably had an epic failure or two under his belt) I was able to carry on. The project launch was very successful, and the board member and I are now close friends, and can now laugh about it. Since that evening I have given presentations in front of crowds greater than 1000, containing furious stakeholders and investigative reporters all without a hitch. None has ever been as scary as driving back from my encounter with the Rat Poison Queen.

But what should I have done?

  1. I should have stood my ground quietly, and silently, while the freight train passed.
  2. Once it was through, should have looked sweetly at the time keeper and in my best adopted Southern drawl assure her that I would now keep to three minutes.
  3. Retaken control of the audience by standing silently and then beginning fresh.
  4. Delivered my presentation for the three minutes allotted.
  5. Stood back and let the crowd at the Rat Poison.  Don’t ever stand between a crowd and the main event.
  6. Later, in the privacy of the trusty  Geo Tracker, sung “New York, New York” in my best Ed Koch imitation as I drove to the next presentation. (Okay, maybe should skip that part but it did occur to me as I shook and trembled the whole way to the final presentation of the evening, knowing I needed to put in a very unpleasant call to my boss. Bravado is a New Yorker’s middle name.)

Have you ever blown a presentation?  What do YOU do when your planned presentation has a mishap? Or when your 20 minute presentation is being condensed to 5 minutes on 30 seconds notice? Have any strong feelings on the pros or cons of rat poison? Feel free to share in the comments section.

book by Jeanne Goldie

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© Jeanne Goldie 2015