Skip to main content

Continuing from last week, I’ll share additional stories that served me well over my career. The first is about a challenge I faced as UA’s chancellor while giving an address at the end of the Campaign for the Twenty-First Century. Specifically, I was speaking at a concert featuring Willie Nelson and celebrating the success of raising more than one billion dollars in private support. Things were going along smoothly until the teleprompter changed from Σφεςϰ,ϑ   ‘ω   Σ”Ω’Ω ϱ.[1]

Staff members in the back of the auditorium were scrambling, trying to solve a software issue. Meanwhile, I continued to wing it and talked about the Campaign until the problem was solved. Fortunately, I was knowledgeable about what was in the script and comfortable in front of friends, donors, administrators, faculty, students, and staff members in the audience. The teleprompter operators and I were the only ones who knew what happened. Now, you do, too!

My teleprompter experience reminds me of the politician who treated his speech writer badly. As the politician read a speech prepared for him by the speech writer, it read as follows: “After careful study and consideration of the needs of each citizen, I am pleased to announce I have authorized the following history-making action effective immediately.” When the politician turned to the next page of his speech, he found the following: “YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN. I QUIT!” Be wary of speech writers who might not have your best interests in mind.

Students asked how I was able to stand in front of thousands of people and give a speech. I responded that I didn’t think about speaking to thousands, but talking to individuals. I focus on one person in the audience and pretend I’m only speaking to that person, then I turn to another person and repeat the process. I’m not nervous, because I’m confident. To be confident, I do my homework. Importantly, I speak from my heart. I let the audience know how much I care, and I endeavor to show my passion for the subject.

Speaking of being passionate about your subject, I’m reminded of one of my faculty colleagues at Georgia Tech. His research was on what is called the traveling salesman problem, a sophisticated mathematical optimization problem that is provably hard to solve. When he was assigned to teach a course on technical sales, my colleague taught the entire course on the traveling salesman problem. I’ve wondered how well his students did if they, in fact, chose to pursue careers in technical sales.

The approach of my Georgia Tech colleague reminds me of the world’s expert on a particular subject. He was on his way to give yet another speech on the subject he had spoken on ad nauseam over the past two years. Accompanying him was his chauffeur, who heard him give the speech ad nauseam times minus one (he wasn’t present the first time the speech was given.) Suddenly, the expert became ill and asked his chauffeur to substitute for him. The chauffeur demurred, saying “I won’t know how to answer their questions.” “Nonsense,” said the expert. “They’re always the same. You can do this. I can’t possibly stand up for the duration of my speech.” So, the chauffeur gave the speech, receiving thunderous applause. As questions were asked, he answered them perfectly. That is, until a new question was asked. The chauffeur paused before replying, “A very good question, but the answer is obvious. To show you how obvious the answer is, I’ll have my chauffeur answer it.” Being quick on your feet also helps.

I’ve used the following story many times when discussing the challenges in communicating accurately to a diverse audience: “History reveals the world’s greatest conflicts often are couched in differences in religious beliefs. Consequently, it was decided to resolve the conflicts by identifying the one true religion. To do so, a series of debates was used. Following the NCAA basketball format, a tournament bracket was created with every religion in the world represented by its best debater. Because of language differences among the debaters, to level the playing field, sign language was used. After many weeks, the finalists were a mystery religion from a remote section of the Balkans and Catholicism. The Pope represented Catholicism; the mystery religion was represented by a man we’ll call X.

“Following a coin toss, the Pope made his opening statement by making the sign of a rainbow. X replied by repeatedly pointing his index finger at the center of his podium. Next, the Pope held up three fingers; X responded by holding up his right index finger. The Pope held up a goblet of wine and a small loaf of bread. X held up an apple. A 10-minute break was declared.

“When the Pope met with his staff, he said they needed a different strategy because he was losing the debate. Responding to their questions, he described what happened: ‘I said God is everywhere and X said God is right here with us. I spoke about the Holy Trinity and X spoke about the one true God. Finally, I spoke about the elements of Holy Communion, but X countered by saying we are the Apple of God’s Eye. We are in deep trouble.’

“Meanwhile, with his staff, X said the Pope was an idiot and he couldn’t stand him. When asked what happened, X said, ‘The Pope began by telling me to leave the room, to which I said I was staying right there. Next, the Pope said I had 3 minutes to clear the room and I told him if he said one more word, I would take him on right there, right then. Then, the Pope asked for a lunch break by showing me his lunch, I showed him my lunch, and we left.’”

This story reminds me of the Miscommunication Law: I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize what you heard is not what I meant.


Next: Let Me Tell You a Story—Part III

[1] English to Greek.