Ian Whitworth learns the perils of distracted pre-presentation banter.
I got a lot of nice emails about the column a couple of issues ago where my Scouser designer and I had to declare allegiance to a football team during a major new business pitch.
I thought I’d fill you in on another presentation lesson from the other end of that project, a three month global branding odyssey. We had circumnavigated the globe twice, spending day after day discussing the challenges of construction industry professionals. We drank a reasonable amount of international beer to take the edge off this massive knowledge overdose.
And every single conversation we had over the three months started with: “How was your flight?”
It’s a hard one to answer unless you bust into a routine about airline food like some bad club comic. Flights are just not that interesting.
“Good thanks,” we answered a million times. We had developed an exciting global brand, and done lots of behind-the-scenes lobbying between the Australians, Kiwis, Americans, Chinese and British to get it over the finish line. All that remained was a final presentation at the global business partners meeting in Sydney, a tricky affair. Their global partnership rules needed 100 per cent approval of major moves like this. A single “no” vote could scuttle the ship.
The sheer repetition and relentless travel had pushed us into a mental twilight zone. Our eyeballs were rotating like psychedelic pinwheels.
Our flight from Phoenix landed in Sydney at 6:05 AM. The meeting was 10am. You know those flights where the plane pulls up to the gate and everyone jumps up excitedly, but the plane’s just slightly in the wrong position, so you have to wait half an hour standing at a weird angle under the overhead lockers? That happened. So I had a lot of time to examine the back of the head of the guy standing in front of me.
He was slightly shorter than I am, and had one of those classic old school hair transplants, the perfectly-spaced plug forest that made him look like a hairbrush. In my brain-fried state, I became as hypnotised by this spectacle as any toad-licking North Coast stoner. If I rocked slowly from side to side, you got that same animation effect you get driving past a managed pine plantation. It was good for a solid 15 minutes of old-fashioned freakshow amusement.
Finally we escaped the plane, cabbed to the meeting, and started setting up our presentation. One of the client partners had already arrived.
“How was your flight?”
As I absently shuffled the PowerPoint, some part of my brain went: hey, for once I’ve got an interesting story for that! Like some chat show raconteur, I gave him the full hair plug story, full of flourishes and witty asides. People are fascinated by stories of male wigs and hair transplants. They go to the very heart of the male condition, with all its deluded vanity and futile attempts to stop the march of time.
I stood up from the laptop and finished with: “So at least I got a story out of the flight, that hardly ever happens, eh?”
“Yeah. (Pause). Of course back when I was 25 I started losing my hair, pretty young for that to happen, tough time. So I got it done,” he says.
I look at his forehead. And Oh. My. God. Yes, he had the same dolls’ hair plug arrangement, disguised by it being strangely curlier than the usual do. All the air sucked out of the room.
“Ah yes, I see you did,” I said.
That was the best I had. There was no magic set of words that was going to dig me out of that dark pit. We both paused and looked out the window in that “let’s both pretend this never happened” way. He was remarkably civil for the rest of the day, all things considered, and voted in favour of our proposal.
Lifetime note to self: when someone asks you how the flight was, you say: “Good thank you.”
And stop it right there, fool.