As an Army officer for 33 years and a professional speaker on the corporate and association circuit since my retirement four years ago, I had, through study and experience, become comfortable being in front of and conveying messages regarding leadership and supply chain optimization to a variety of audiences.
In a reversal of the norm, I just published a book this past summer (“4-3-2-1 Leadership: What America’s Sons and Daughters Taught Me on the Road from Second Lieutenant to Two-Star General”). I say “reversal” because I was informed (after the fact) that FIRST you’re supposed to write the book, THEN go out and speak about it (I didn’t know). But after four years of audience members coming up and asking where my book was, I finally took out my laptop and wrote the book.
To roll the book out and support some local events in my hometown in Madison County, Alabama, we scheduled a book-signing event at the historic and newly renovated Merrimack Hall, in Huntsville, Alabama.
I was more nervous than normal for a few reasons: First, in preparation for the event I began watching book events on C-Span and maybe I was watching at the wrong times, but I NEVER saw more than 20-30 people in the audience listening to an author. The thought of speaking in Merrimack Hall filled to 10% capacity was a bit worrisome. Second, unlike speaking to audiences on the circuit, I was in a pitch-black auditorium during the dress rehearsal and couldn’t see more than two rows of the audience. That was disconcerting. And finally, I wasn’t an experienced reader in public, so blending speaking with reading was a new challenge.
As the event came upon us, the Merrimack Hall staff did their usual great job. I was on TV, radio, and local newspapers, and we were blessed with an audience of 200 people in the theater. The tech crew had lighting synchronized, pictures from the book on a roll that the audience could view, and music from my lifetime. My introduction was flawlessly handled by a dear friend, who put her heart into it and made it special.
I couldn’t have had a better set-up.
Then I learned the lesson that no matter what you do, “Sometimes it’s NOT the speaker.”
Shortly after I began my talk, I moved from the stool I had been reading from and began to circulate on the stage using photos on the screen to tell the story. In one of the front rows, I noticed a couple who had become very close friends of ours as we transitioned into “life in the South.” While I was happy to see them, I noticed that the husband was not looking up at me nor listening to what I was saying. Rather, he had that look known as the “thousand-yard stare.” He looked straight ahead, his eyes level with the stage, and paid no attention to me. Every few minutes, his wife glanced at his eyes and gave him “the nudge.” He would snap out of it, but in no time at all, he was back in “thousand-yard land.”
I didn’t want to stare at him or ask what he was doing. That would either embarrass him, or depending on how he responded, my question could embarrass me. So I pressed on, content to connect with the rest of the crowd.
At the end of the reading I was fortunate to get a great response from the audience, and I went downstairs to autograph books for those who purchased them. At the end of the evening, my front-row couple came down, stood in front of me with their books, and the wife said, “Tell him.”
The husband looked at me and said, “I couldn’t help it, Vinny. All the time you were talking and walking around the stage, there was a bug on the stage right in front of my eyes. Every time you got close, the bug jumped. Then you’d move again, and the bug would jump again. I couldn’t believe you kept missing that bug or that it was able to get out of your way. It was fascinating!...Oh, and you were good, too.”
I smiled, signed the book, and reflected--“Sometimes it’s NOT the speaker.”