“Exit Stage Left”: A communicator’s worst nightmare becomes a speaker’s delusional dream

Guest Post by Alex Yates, who runs the “single shingle firm” Mad Man Marketing. Connect with Alex on LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com/in/alexyates or follow on twitter @SmartAlexander.

When I first got hired as the community relations coordinator by a University’s satellite campus in southern California, I was surprisingly put in charge of that year’s commencement ceremony. The one dictum was that we were on a strict shoestring budget and booking any savings was preferred by my frugal campus director. Typically about 300 people show for this regional ceremony. It’s a basic stage set-up with chairs outside on a lawn at a scenic spot with a speech by someone who could hopefully get us some ink in the weekly newspaper. Being fresh on the job I wanted to impress and set my sights high.

I successfully recruited as our keynote speaker Anthony Thornley, the newest CEO of Qualcomm, the biggest employer in town; such a coup for a tiny campus like ours! We met him for breakfast at his spacious new office for a meet-n-greet to ensure he knew the parameters of our event. I welcomed him to dazzle us with any advice that would benefit our graduates. He was a very friendly fellow with smart anecdotes who hailed from London, so he even had a charming British accent which made us all think this was going to really class up the normally lackluster ceremony.

I was able to splurge a little more on food and drink, to the delight of my colleagues, because I chose not to hire a photographer since I have a really good camera and fancy myself as an amateur photographer. My cheap boss thought this was splendid!

The venue was impressive. I booked a small park on the cliffs of Pt. Loma overlooking the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. One the day of the commencement everything seemed to come together; the sun was shining, birds were singing, and everyone was in good spirits. I was ready for the culmination of my efforts to come to fruition and then end, hopefully, with a standing ovation.

After the pomp and circumstance entrance, I positioned myself at the end of the stage, allowing Very Important People to be seated front and center for maximum attention on them, and minimum attention on me. At every phase of the program I slid out of my seat, snapped a photo or two of the people being honored, and quickly sat down. It worked brilliantly. Professor of the Year? Out of my chair, click off a photo, return to my chair and plop down. Student of the Year? Out of my chair, click of a photo, return to my chair and plop down. Et cetera.

And then the keynote speaker began. Amazingly, he was dreadful! He mumbled incoherently into the microphone while giving us the tedious history of the computer chip created to build the company for which he was in charge. It was a complete snooze-fest. I was deflated. I sat there shaking my head in disbelief and how underwhelming he was. Such a forgettable moment after so much effort went into making it memorable. But I needed a photo of him for my press release which I had promised to send to a reporter of a community weekly newspaper since it would feature the new CEO of San Diego’s only fortune 500 company.

Mayhem erupted when I popped up to snap a few stock pictures of the speaker stoically reading his script and then plopped back down in my chair for the Nth time, whereupon my white folding chair had inched closer and closer with each up-and-down, had now scooted completely off the stage, sending me tumbling backward in a somersault, cap and gown go flying, and I land on my knees in the grass as 300 people burst into wild laughter at the welcome distraction!

The CEO takes this as his cue to end on a high note, oblivious to my theatrics, and moves to sit down. The audience, delighted he is finally finished, and still laughing at my misstep, jump up and give him a standing ovation! I only wish I had had the presence of mind to snap a photo of the CEO standing in an Alfred Hitchcock profile in front of a wildly cheering crowd.

A forgettable speech became the most memorable commencement in the history of the campus.

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