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June 2004
Success Harmony Newsletter


It is easy to get caught up with taking ourselves a little too seriously at times. Nowhere does this happen as much as when we are in public view. We then want to look good and in control of ourselves and our surroundings. I believe that this is one of the main reasons why public speaking is cause of such fear among so many people. We want to be so perfect that it is easy to forget just to have fun.

I was conducting a 2-day management and leadership skills seminar in New Jersey recently. Many of the people in the seminar are having tough issues with their employees, with their superiors or with both. I take pride in making my seminars lighthearted and yet full of ways of dealing with the attendees' real life headaches. After all, that's why they come. They want to learn something to deal with the person who has an excuse for everything, for the person who gets defensive when hearing constructive feedback, or for the person who creates problems by gossiping. Serious stuff and I'm the "expert" in the room.

All went well until 10 minutes before our first break on the first day. At that point, some little fuzz got into my breathing passages and wouldn't leave. It's bad enough when you are the person about to die publicly of loud cough in the back row. Going through this at the front of the room with 35 people watching you gasp for air doesn't do well for projecting expertise. We got through that episode, however, and moved on. That bliss lasted another hour or so. At that point, two friendly but shy hotel workers appeared through the door of one side of the seminar room. Politely but with an aura of urgency, they waited to be acknowledged by me. When I did, one of them shuffled towards me and asked, "We need to get the popcorn machine in the room on the other side of the seminar room. Is that OK with you?"

A few thoughts went through my head quickly. I suppose I could have asked if this request really couldn't wait for another hour until we go for lunch, but the look in the workers' faces told me that this weird request really did have an important reason. I decided to let them go ahead and said, "sure you can get the machine, as long as you bring us some popcorn, too!" Everyone laughed and the workers went to their popcorn machine room. All seemed simple enough until it became clear that moving out the popcorn machine meant them spending five minutes shuffling things loudly about and finally triumphantly carting the machine in the space between myself and the rest of the crowd. I will admit that, by now, I figured that my "management and leadership expertise" had been completely discredited with every single participant in the room. There was a little more distraction and we got back to the program.

So I thought. In the middle of the afternoon portion of the program, the back door of the seminar room opened and the same two workers are carting in the same darned popcorn machine. I was about to tell them that bringing it back could surely wait, when they proceeded to lift the machine on one of my back tables. Then I understood. Whether it was a practical joke or a way of fulfilling their promise to me from the morning, I won't know. Again, my mind quickly went back and forth with thoughts of extreme embarrassment of my credibility when something told me to just give up and give in. "Look at this, they really did bring us some popcorn!" This seemed to take away all tension and discomfort in the room instantly. All the participants looked in the back and started to howl. We had a good time until then, but this transformed all of us from a group of well-behaving adults into a bunch of happy kids reminded of a night at the movies.

I did attempt to bring the seminar back to order by promising we would all get popcorn during the break, but I could tell that the popping machine in the back held their interest way more than any of the cutting edge management ideas I could share in the front. I turned it into a joke and gave them all 5 minutes to go grab some popcorn and return to their seats. They did and, for the rest of the afternoon, the seminar included the unmistakable smell and crunchy sound of popcorn. Although the popcorn machine was no longer there for the second day of the seminar, the energy from the event sure stayed. We laughed and learned more as we made a few references to the popcorn. The participants, strangers only the day before, somehow bonded even more than a group normally does.

So much for trying to control things. Although I have always been a believer in flexibility, this situation taught me how a seemingly distracting event can in fact be turned into a better experience. If I had tried to "control" the situation by fighting with the staff over their right to come in, I may have elbowed my way into appearing the strong leader I was supposed to be, but I would have lost the crowd. This way, I did lose control for a few moments but the result was well worth it.

What is the take-away value from this story, then? Let's lighten up a little. We have lots of people waiting around to be offended by us not doing something right, but could it be that they are just as afraid of losing control themselves? Could it be that we could all benefit by seeing that losing control can actually give us a better experience at times? So, next time we get cut off in traffic or told that the management report we have worked on for the last five months will not be implemented after all because the boss had decided to go with his own back-of-the-envelope conclusions, let's not fight it. Let's see how to turn the situation around into something good, perhaps even something better than if plans had gone just as intended.

Sunshine and smiles,


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