Biggest fuck up?
Striding into the room with my shoulders back and chest out, I felt like I was the cock of the walk. Juiced up on my own self-importance, I had an air of invincibility. I was untouchable.
In no small part, thanks to some relentless online humble-bragging, I’d been asked to help a small Balkan nation write its digital economy strategy. This was it. A whole country wanted my help. I’d made it. Worldwide recognition awaited me. “Give it a year, Desmier, and you’ll be advising the United Nations,” I thought to myself.
Hubris was an alien concept to me.
The project was to start with a workshop led by me and hosted in the equivalent of their Houses of Parliament. Except the room was set up all wrong. Rows of tables facing the front, like a lecture theatre. Even in such illustrious surroundings, my ego barely fitted into the room, and with this set-up, there was no way my workshop prowess would be able to shine. And that’s why they’d got me here because apparently, I delivered great workshops.
Throwing tables around with wild abandon, the room was swiftly reconfigured to suit my needs. And then, the participants began filing into the room.
For the majority of the 20th century, this country had been part of the former Yugoslavia. And whilst technically Communist rule ended with the dissolution of that state, the rules and control still hung heavy over the inhabitants. You could sense it as they slowly marched towards the desks and took their seats.
With Post-It notes and Sharpies liberally distributed around the room and the energy of a toddler fuelled by E numbers, I began my workshop.
“Thank you for coming along today,” I said with my arms flailing around. Ignoring the sea of unresponsive blank faces, I carried on, “I’ve designed an exciting interactive session for us today and for the next four hours…”
A hand went up, and in a thick accent, a lone voice muttered, “No one here speaks English.”
Immediately I could feel the sweat breaking out across my shoulders. Fuck. With all the congratulations I’d been giving myself, I’d failed to do the most basic of workshop preparations and hadn’t given the audience a single thought. So arrogant was I and consumed with self-belief I’d assumed the room would be hanging off my every word. It had never occurred to me that they wouldn’t know who I was, let alone understand a word I was saying.
Thankfully a young girl, who was part of the official team that had brought me over, volunteered to be my interpreter.
This is salvable, I thought and continued, albeit with a slightly stilted delivery via a second mouthpiece, to describe the exercise I wanted the room to do.
“Grab some Post-It notes… [PAUSE]… and a Sharpie… [PAUSE]… and start writing down… [PAUSE]… how you think… [PAUSE]…” This was going to be a long afternoon, but at least they were active, they were writing thoughts down, and they were sticking them to the wall.
Wait? What the..? They’re scribbling unrecognisable shapes down. Fuck. They’re using the Cyrillic alphabet. This is literally all Greek to me. I can’t even guess what they’ve written. How on earth am I going to group these into themes?
By now, the beads of sweat were clearly visible on my forehead, and my once dry, pale blue shirt was sodden and dark navy.
I lowered my head and walked to the back of the room to speak to Vladimir, the guy who’d organised the session. “Dude. What are we going to do? There’s a massive language barrier, and I’m not sure how to overcome it. We can carry on trying to do this, but it’s gonna be super painful, and I’m not sure it’s worth it.”
He nodded sagely and then said, “Yes. I can see your problem. But they’ve been told this session is four hours long, and they will sit in this room for the next four hours, whether you do anything or not. So you should probably do something” He finished his little pep talk with “, Put it this way, your career has just experienced its absolute lowest point.”
I struggled on.
Hanging around on my laptop were a bunch of talks I’d given at various conferences, so I delivered them to an entirely uninterested room. For the rest of the afternoon, I just talked to people who didn’t know what I was saying and couldn’t care less either.
I managed to cobble together the digital economy strategy. Desk-based research and some face-to-face interviews eventually saved the project, and actually, what I delivered was pretty good. Although I’ve no idea if they implemented it or not because — unsurprisingly — I’ve not been invited back.
But I’ve never taken an audience, or workshop preparation, for granted ever again.
Stop focusing on the latest shiny new thing.
Or rather focus on it, but do it quietly.
And please, oh please, if nothing else, stop banging on about it on LinkedIn.
It’s super admirable that you want to learn about voice search, 3D printing, the metaverse, blockchain, NFTs or AI. It’s interesting. And I can appreciate that in 20 or 30 years, my grandkids’ experience of the world might be different to mine as a result.
But right now, I really don’t think your top ten list of ChatGPT prompts to teach your connected fridge to write your weekly shopping list is gonna help move the human race forward.
Your personal brand might grow infinitesimally, and that short, sharp hit of dopamine you receive from the slew of likes your post gets might tide you over till your next hit. But in the grand scheme of things, you’re not moving the needle one iota.
There are 7.8 billion people on the planet, and an eighth of them are on LinkedIn. It’s no coincidence that the people who are really making waves; the ones who’re designing these systems and building the future, the researchers, academics, technologists and big thinkers; aren’t on LinkedIn.
They’re busy doing the stuff.
It’s a distraction. You’re being distracted. And you’re distracting others.
If you have to post on LinkedIn, talk about global inequality. Everyday sexism. Systemic racism. The gender pay gap. The fucking planet is on fire. If you have influence, use it for something worthwhile.
Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and I doubt very much whether you or anyone other than Elon Musk wants to be Johnny Five.
Moreover, I suspect you and I would like to see your mum, your sister or your daughter paid fairly. You’d like your transgender school friend to feel accepted in the world. Or that black kid you grew up with to not have to think twice about every decision they ever have to make.
So get excited by that shiny new thing by all means, but have a bit of perspective.
You’re supposed to be quite bright, after all.
It turns out that what you feed people at events really matters. I guess this fits with the whole Maya Angelou “people will remember how you made them feel” school of thought. But
For years I ran big conferences, plus a host of other events, and a lesson I learnt was not to serve people cheap, deep-fried shit and curled-up sandwiches.
At the first large-scale conference I produced, I pulled together an immense line-up of speakers. Heads of Innovation from the BBC and Ogilvy rubbed shoulders with the Lead Evangelist from Microsoft, the Head of Creative from Skype, the Chief Marketing Officer of Yahoo! and the CMO from Virgin Media. There were early social media mavericks, creative technologists and design legends too.
The inspirational nuggets were non-stop over those two days, and I walked away feeling pretty good. But that feeling soon changed when I checked social media and read reports of the nuggets being eaten.
Initially, feedback was positive. People loved the speakers, were learning stuff and felt empowered to try new things. And then, someone commented on the lunch menu, and the (online) mood changed. People were tweeting back and forth about the deep-fried calamari being chewy, the chicken skewers being tough, and the sandwiches being bereft of filling. They were moaning about the queues too, and now no one was talking about the speakers.
And it didn’t let up.
Five days later and the only feedback I was receiving, indeed the only conversation anyone appeared to be having, was about the poor sustenance that had been provided. What should’ve been a triumph of ideas was overshadowed by the lacklustre platter.
From that day forward, I vowed that what I fed attendees would become my top priority.
The lesson? Folk are fickle, and what is on the menu is as important as who is on the programme.