I don’t think anyone who knows me would call me shy or introverted. But I don’t care how confident you are, speaking in front of a very large group of total strangers has to be completely unnerving for anyone. Last week I had the chance to do just that. I didn’t anticipate, expect or even ask for this perch but it was handed to me, nonetheless, by my manager. I’m lucky enough to have two jobs. One of them is for a non-profit research organization called Catalyst, which aims to expand opportunities for women and business.
Every year Catalyst has their Awards Dinner gala at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC where they honor organizations who have created successful initiatives to empower women. Typically our partner, FCB creates a video to kick-off the dinner. But this year I suggested hosting a video contest instead. Our theme, Disrupt the Default, seemed to be perfect to try something new and ask our members, followers and interested parties to show us how they’d be a disruptor.
As a non-profit research organization, Catalyst had never done anything of the sort. But everyone loved the idea and I was told to run with it. Luckily we got lots of entries before the deadline and our partners, The Representation Project, the 3% Conference and FCB (Neon) judged the entries. We also had our social community choose a fan favorite from the finalists. It was decided that we’d show the winning video for the first time at the Awards Dinner. And here’s the rub. My boss sent me an email asking if I’d like to introduce them. It’s not like I could say ‘no’, although of course I was flattered and honored. So I jumped at the chance, and then it sank in. I’d be up in front of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and 1500 global business leaders. This was by far my largest audience ever.
Luckily, I had two things in my corner. Actually three. First, being a writer I knew I could get my speech on paper pretty quickly and make it sound professional. Two, the theme Disrupt the Default was perfect for someone like me who clearly didn’t belong speaking at this event (I’m pretty low-ranking in this job). And three, I had the support and encouragement of my boss.
I wrote my speech in a matter of minutes and then spent a week or so rehearsing it. I even made notecards like in high school, because my Mom always taught me the best way to memorize something was to write it over and over. As the date of the dinner approached I also found out I’d be sitting on the dais with the CEOs of our award-winning initiatives, Chevron and Proctor & Gamble, the Catalyst Board of Directors and our own CEO, Deborah Gillis. No pressure. Typically staff is behind the stage in what I refer to as “steerage” watching the event unfold on a video monitor. But this year I was on the stage with the big wigs. I even needed to bring a costume change since the dais is black tie and during the daytime conference it would have been odd to wear my red dress and sparkly heels.
I had a glass of wine prior to my speech but no food. I needed to take the edge off but wasn’t tempting fate. I also had the support and encouragement of the video winners and all my colleagues, assuring me I’d do wonderfully (what did they know?!). I had rehearsed the night before in front of Mr. Delicious, so I had the perfect ice breaker to get the crowd laughing as he had told me “I didn’t understand a word you just said.” Luckily, they did laugh. I think. I don’t remember most of my actual speech since I was trying to focus on looking at the audience and not the giant screen with my face projected on it. Also there was an apple box at the podium for short people but since I’m tall and was wearing heels, I just rested one foot on it and spent a lot of time worrying I might awkwardly topple over if I leaned too heavily one way. I don’t think my voice shook, although my hands certainly did. Thank god they were concealed by the podium. I do recall a resounding applause which made me have to wait to continue when I said this, “The fact that I’m on this dais, with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and leaders of some of the most important change organizations in the world, and speaking to a crowd of nearly — ahem – 1500 global business leaders and influencers, is proof that ANYONE of any level can Disrupt the Default.” It was pretty emotional actually.
Of course I also recall the din of chatter when I was introducing our winners, but I suppose people can’t really pay attention for more than 3 minutes these days. Besides the technical difficulties — yeah, the video didn’t play, oops (although they got it work a little while later), I think it went swimmingly. Total strangers came up and told me how well I did and apparently I was the talk of the staff room, or again, so I’m told. I think since I’m a part-time and remote employee, this was a rare occasion for people to see me in a different light. I’m really looking forward to watching the video of my performance so I can see how it looked from the other side! I’m proud of myself for pulling this off and by the way, I’m pretty sure we might do this again next year. So I’d better get rehearsing!