HUBRIS – THE SLIPPERY SLOPE OF PRIDE
Public speaking is said to be the second most common phobia, trailing only air travel. Well, I like flying. However, despite my career in sales and marketing, I have never been all that comfortable speaking in front of a group. A combination of deep research and multiple rehearsals allows me to, generally, get through these speeches unscathed. But the pre-day jitters are always present.
So circumstances aligned to make a business trip to Europe especially fraught with peril. A German manufacturer was convening a meeting of all major United States distributors at their facility in Baden-Baden. Distributor company owners and their seconds in command were to make presentations highlighting their accomplishments and showcasing future plans. The owner of the company I worked for, an elegant and natural speaker, had a prior commitment and could not make this trip. By default, I was suddenly the face of our company stating our case in front of not only the manufacturer’s executive board, but also, the principals of distributorships from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.
Powerful, rich and worldly men were to be my audience.
We were staying at the luxurious Schlosshotel Buhlerhohe overlooking the magnificent Rhine Valley and our German hosts were gracious and generous. Our afternoon included a horse drawn carriage ride in the snow through the beautiful country side, while being warmed up considerably by liberal pourings of schnapps. The evening was highlighted by an amazing private fireworks display lighting up the adjoining mountains.
A memorable day for certain, but, it did not quell the mounting anxiety I felt when alone in my room that night fearing my next morning’s duty as the first speaker of the seminar. I tossed, turned, paced, rehearsed, sweated and cursed my way through most of the late evening and early morning before exhaustion finally forced me into three hours of fretful sleep.
Fortunately, with my penchant for preparation I had ascertained that there would be a video screen available and an electric current adapter so I could use my laptop. This was in 1999 and the other distributors did not think to ask. Therefore, my presentation was greatly enhanced with impressive slides, graphs and videos while my compatriots were left to do with xeroxed copies of sales figures and cut out ads they had run in their local newspapers. Not to sound too immodest, I’ll steal a Paul Simon line to say, “I blew that room away!”
Following our meeting and a late lunch we were flown to Paris for the second leg of our trip and an evening reception at the manufacturer’s showroom in the City of Lights. Unburdened by not having to make any more presentations, in fact buoyed by my performance, I was able to enjoy the grand festivities planned by our hosts. After a quick narrated city tour our luxury bus pulled into a large parking lot where two helicopters awaited our arrival. Much to our delight we boarded the whirlybirds and were soon aloft. The pilots circled us around the Eiffel Tower before following the winding path of the Seine River out to a country chateaux which had been transformed into an art museum with a lovely restaurant in the cellar. This was a true keep sake day.
Our hotel was on the the Champs – Elysees midway between the Tuileries Garden and the Arc de Triomphe. For the evening reception I broke out my Joseph Aboud suit from Nordstrom’s and a brand new just out of the box pair of Johnston & Murphy all leather dress shoes. I was about as styling as this guy from a small town in Rhode Island was ever going to get.
In fact, all things considered, as I headed for the lobby I was about as “puffed up” about myself as I’d ever allowed. I exited the hotel with my German hosts and the other guests to take the short walk up the Champs – Elysees to the event. We took a right after wheeling our way around the hotel’s brass revolving door. Stepping onto the sidewalk I became immobile. No, immobile would have been good. Rather, with each stride I attempted up the slight incline heading towards the Arc de Triomphe I felt myself slide backwards. The combination of incline, fine mist of rain, cobblestone surface and my never worn before shoes made the simple act of walking impossible! My puzzled companions silently watched as I struggled for traction. As soon as I stiff legged my way slightly forward physics
would kick in sending me back further than my starting point.
“New shoes.”, I sheepishly explained while pointing to the offending oxfords.
Germans have an unwarranted stereotype as lacking a sense of humor. My new friends disproved this stereotype with their “assistance” to my plight. Standing on either side of me, holding an arm, two of these gentlemen slowly pushed me up the mini-hill towards our destination. They, understandably, could not resist the temptation to occasionally shove me a bit further ahead of the group only to let go and cheerfully laugh as I silently slid back to them. Eventually, abetted by scratching the soles vigorously with a key, I was able to become self ambulatory.
Aside from much good natured ribbing the remainder of the trip was wonderful.
Two lessons learned; first, don’t let your lows get too low or your highs too high, second, always scuff up the soles before you wear new leather dress shoes.
Bonjour and Auf Wiedersehen!