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The Day Nelson Mandela Asked for My Help


I started honing my presentation skills very early on in my career. I would sit, swathed in a terry towel nappy and throw my Weetabix from my high chair. I did not have specific targets in mind, but each spoonful seemed to land in the most unhelpful place. I noted certain targets secured more attention ie face, hair, ceiling and the box in the corner with moving black and white pictures on it. The more Weetabix I was able to distribute, the more attention I got.


As a shepherd in my school nativity play I was delighted to discover the whole audience applauded when I removed my pants. I seemed to have a knack for public performances. The years rolled by and soon I was singing solos in church. Reciting poetry and holding Shakespeare close to my heart whilst reciting Ye olde english verses to standing ovations. (in my misty eyed dreams)


Eventually my voice broke and spots appeared everywhere with wheeping yellow puss. I decided my career had come to an end and I was better in the background. In reality it was little more than a couple of years before I was back out of hibernation and adoring the lime light again. Putting my amateur dramatic days aside, I decided to focus on my passion for public speaking. I was good enough to earn spots at many events and each opportunity to speak, helped improve my timing, breathing and audience reach. Of course not every speech was a total success, there were bad days. I remember standing up at the allotment association annual general meeting to hold forth about harvesting fruit and making jams to find 2 people in an empty church hall. Or turning up at 3pm to speak at a retirement party to find the event had taken place the previous week.

I was almost a "best man rental business", speaking at weddings to entertain the crowds and embarrass the groom. I joined the debating society I even stood on a soap box in Hyde Park Corner to exercise my ancient right to speak to the collected pigeons. The years peeled away and I grew naturally into business presentations, acetates under my arm I put while rooms of business people asleep after lunch. Key note speaker slots followed on my chosen subjects and life was good.


In 2004 I started to travel the world and spoke at events in 85 countries. From 2006 I started working on projects in South Africa and was very privileged to be asked to undertake some work in South Africa for the 46664 charity which undertook projects on behalf of The Nelson Mandela Foundation. It was a huge honour. I had grown up knowing this man was behind bars, watching the concerts and sanctions achieve little to aid his release. By the time of his long walk to freedom he was the most famous man on earth. His step into the South African presidency was a huge moment when the world held its breath. I read the books, the biography, I watched the old TV shows of this giant being handcuffed and his trial. And now here I was supporting in a tiny way his work and his legacy.


However, the best was yet to come. As Nelson Mandela approached his 90th Birthday he started to undertake a number of public events aimed at handing over his legacy to the younger leaders in South Africa. They were called "its in your hands" and drew large crowds to glimpse the sun setting on an amazing life. I remember the phone call asking me if I could speak at one of these events. I went into shock. I would actually share the stage with Nelson Mandela. Well not quite but if you are lucky he may be in the room. Ok, even as a distant warm up act this was the pinnacle of my career. I accepted immediately.

I planned my input, rehearsed it until my voice was sore. I got my hair cut, including nose, eyebrows and ears. I even bought a new smart dark suit, white shirt, cuff links and yellow tie to sharpen my image. I was ready, I looked the part and I was going to knock their socks off. I arrived at the venue 6 hours early, I checked out the room, the acoustics, the views from different parts of the auditorium. I knew this was a once in a lifetime event and I wanted it to be great. I retired from the room, rested, drank hot water with honey and lemon, checked my notes once more. I went back to the room with an hour to spare, the audience were gathering around the round tables with white table clothes on. I knew where my hero would be sitting. As I paced and checked the room, I was taken aback when the great man appeared and slowly walked into the room.


Here I was, in the same room as Nelson Mandela, but not only that, but, I was to speak for him and his guests. I nearly froze. He sat at he table, settled himself. He looked around as though searching for something or someone. Eventually his eyes set upon mine and we connected. Not only did we connect but he beckoned me to approach him. I literally walked on air towards his table, revelling in the moment, my hair cut, nails trimmed, new pressed suit finishing off a very smart look. Not only was I to speak with Nelson Mandela into the room, but he called me over to speak to me. He must have recognised me and as I stood alongside him, nervous, I shall never forget the advice he sought from me.


Nelson Mandela said "Excuse me, would it be possible to have a bottle of cold still water".


Stunned I left the table immediately and returned with the water, having grabbed from a passing waiter, who was wearing a very similar suit to mine. I left the water and left the room. Over awed I had let my self image grow unabated to such an extent that I thought Nelson Mandela wanted my advice. How shallow, how foolish. My ego battered, I slumped into a chair, I waited for my slot and as I walked out on to the stage I saw the big mans table was bare. He had left earlier after a children's choir. I spoke into a room empty of heroes and left to the mild appreciation of a slightly bored audience.


The lesson I took from this was never believe your own PR, nor your own Linkedin Profile. Never let the horse get in front of the cart. Humility was my friend and ego my fiend. I have grown through this and each of the many life experiences where I have over reached and landed with a bump. It also taught me to be much more appreciative of every waiter who assists me, one day they could be wearing my suit. I have learnt to drop my guard, not to polish every line. I recognise that nerves are good and awkwardness can endear you to an audience. I learnt it is less about the cover of my book and more about the content of what I want to say and who I am inside that counts. I have stopped wanting to speak in public and instead I am much more interested in sharing ideas and life lessons. Perhaps most importantly I realise that I have two ears and one mouth for good reason. Listening is a skill that takes years to hone and I still have a long way to go.


What are your public speaking life lessons?

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