Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Speaking to strangers

I am puzzled by the reaction I have to the prospect of speaking to strangers. Note I say the "prospect of speaking". The actual act of speaking to strangers is fine but it's my reaaction to the the prospect that I find interesting.

For example, on Tuesday morning I was a keynote speaker at a conference in London, Innovate08. This was a high profile conference with an audience of about 1,000 executives. I shared the stage with Richard Farleigh, one of the "Dragons" on BBCs Dragons Den, Iain Gray, Chief Executive of the Technology Strategy Board and the event was compared by BBC Newsnight's Kirsty Wark. Mine and Richard's keynote speeches were followed by an address by the Government Minister, John Denham MP.

I was fully prepared for my 25 minute keynote. Remember the rules? 4 minutes per slide, so I had just 6 punchy slides. I had practiced, practiced, practiced with a stopwatch so I was complete fluent and had the timing down to the second. However as I sat there on the stage, staring out at 1,000 (mostly) men in grey suits, and Kirsty introduced me I felt my heart accelerating and thumping harder and harder. As I was wearing a microphone I wondered whether there was a sound engineer at the back somewhere fiddling with his equipment, wondering what the hell was going on.

Strangely I didn't actually feel nervous at all. I was quite relaxed. But my body decided that it was going to accelerate my heartbeat anyway. How odd. I found as I was sitting there that if I focused on it I seemed to be able to slow the beat down or speed it up, but I couldn't stop it happening in the first place. I decided to monitor this again later in the day.

The speech and the Q&A seemed to go fine and I got good feedback, and then I dashed off to my next meeting - a pitch for Garlik to a venture capital firm in West London. This was a reasonably high stakes, tough meeting with one of those lazer eyed VCs who delights in disrupting the flow of your pitch, jumping around from point to point with a series of machine gun delivered questions and not letting you get in to your stride, but this was someone I have met a couple of times in the past. I checked. Not a stranger. No accelerated heart rate. Interesting.

On the underground to my next meeting, I found myself standing next to a lady in a tweed skirt. I noticed she had a random label stuck to her skirt that shouldn't be there. She hadn't spotted this. So, I thought "someone should tell her". But no one else had noticed. Just me. Suddenly I realised that I might have to tell her. My heart rate started to accelerate again. I was going to have to speak to a stranger again! Oh No. I tried to ignore the label. I tried vaguely making eye contact and then looking down towards the label but this just seemed to make her scowl and edge away. Finally as she started to leave the tube at her stop, I pounced "errr, errrr, label, errr, errr" I stuttered pointing. "Oh, thank you very much" she beamed and left the train as I collapsed onto a seat in a heap, drained, heart thumping.

I arrived at my final meeting of the day, which was a dinner for a handful of folk with Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty. It was an interesting group of fellow diners, including the Channel 4/ITN TV presenter, Jon Snow and the man who brought the Big Brother TV show to the UK, Peter Bazalgette. After Shami's erudite comments, we got in to a free flowing Q&A session about privacy an civil liberties issues. I knew I would be called upon to make a comment or two. But despite the fact that it was a small, informal group, as the host started to point in my direction, my heart leapt into life and started to accelerate again. Thump, thump, thump. I was completely relaxed, as far as I could tell, and I made my comments which seemed to land well, but despite considerable will-power I could not stop my heart thumping away.

So, come on. What's all this about then? Does it happen to anyone else or is it just me?


OllyAitch said...


I was at Innovate08, I wasn't wearing a suit and I couldn't hear your heart so the sound engineer was doing a good job!

I enjoyed your session very much and the day overall. I was a little disappointed that my area of interest(web app's, e-business) was under-represented, .... maybe next year?


Gary Colet said...

Tom, I was also at Innovate '08. No suit and even no tie. I'd been reading 'Presentation Zen' on the tube and your presentation could have been a case study on doing it right. I was inspired. The best exposition of innovation I've heard in a long time. Most (including Richard F) focus on invention. Ps I couldn't hear your heart rate.
Gary Colet
Knowledge and Innovation Network, Warwick Business School

Iain Gray said...


I did wear a suit and tie - maybe next year. I didn't hear your heartbeat because it was drowned out by my own. Your talk was an absolute inspiration and your messages should be heard by all

Iain Gray