Talking to chairs at Inbound 2015
I’m sitting in bed in the Westin Waterfront in Boston (Lovely hotel. Leaf-shaped soap.).
It’s 3:03am. My alarm is set for 5:30 so I can pack and get a cab to the airport for the flight back to London.
I would much rather be sleeping than looking at the arse-end of WordPress on a hot MacBook Air in a dark room.
But every time I close my eyes, they’re back — crab-walking towards me on four legs.
The army of identical, inscrutable chairs.
Staring. Creeping forward imperceptibly. Coming to get me.
It’s not a nightmare. It’s a flashback.
Sixteen hours ago, I stood at the front of Ballroom West in the Really Really Big Exhibition Center, giving my talk on Insane Honesty In Content Marketing.
To a thousand chairs.
It’s a good talk. I love the subject and I’ve honed the thing each time I give it (including two days ago at Content Marketing World in Cleveland). It usually gets people engaged. Maybe earns a few laughs.
But chairs don’t laugh.
Chairs just… stare. With their featureless, expressionless, pitiless non-faces.
It’s every public speaker’s worst case scenario. And I should have seen it coming.
Someone tweeted this morning, “Thought I would see @dougkessler at #Inbound15 but he’s not on the agenda.” I checked. She was right. My session was one of several that had mysteriously fallen out of the event app. (The super-organised Inbound crew were on to it and soon issued an app update).
Not a big deal (except there wasn’t a printed agenda, so if you’re not on the app, you’re not on). I had already checked with Samantha, my amazingly professional speaker support person. I’d checked out the room earlier in the day and, assuming there had been some mistake, asked her why I was in a room meant to hold at least 900 people.
She tapped her screen and said that 747 people had already signed up for the talk. A normal person would have spat out their coffee and suggested she check again. But I just thought, “Cool. Looks like I’ve become as big a deal in real life as I’ve always been in my head.” (I’m a dick).
So when I walked in a few minutes before my session and saw the chairs, the awful, faceless chairs, my heart went, “Oh.” and my inner critic went, “Hah!” (My own personal dick-inside-a-dick).
I looked at my phone: still six minutes to go. You never know. There might be a chain of security guards with linked arms holding back a throng of Kessler-maniacs just down the hall. And, any second now, the throng might overwhelm those guards and flood into the room, jostling for position and filling all these empty, empty chairs.
Or maybe the 4,000 people waiting for Jonah Peretti’s session on the main stage might sit up and say, “Peretti? I thought this was Kessler!” and rush out of the room, through the exhibition hall, up the stairs, down the long hall, up the other stairs, along the next corridor and into Ballroom West, just in time to grab one of the last soulless , gaping chairs to bask in the clever, clever, glory of Insane Honesty.
Could still happen.
What did happen is my introducer (nice person) read my bio into the feedbacky mic, gestured in my direction and left the stage to me. I hopped up to the podium to the sparse clapping of a pair of inbound marketers from Duluth and a groggy-looking guy who thought he was seeing Jonah Peretti. (Okay, I’m exaggerating. There were maybe 100-120 people max).
Here’s the thing (or a thing anyway): a hundred people in a room designed to hold, say, a hundred and fifty people, feels like a crowd.
A hundred people in a room designed to hold a Celine Dion concert feels like… chairs.
An army of chairs ready to march on another army of chairs.
Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Chairs’.
And, just to add audio to my nightmare, when you take all the people out of a room this size (or, more to the point, fail to attract them in), the acoustics get very, very echoey.
The acoustics were actually mocking me. Even my ‘ums’ had echoes.
But hey. I’m a professional.
I launched into my schtick as if to a room packed with friends, family and fellow content marketers. I pictured a sea of friendly faces laughing at all the right times. Scribbling in their little notebooks. Thumbing my bon mots into their smartphones.
But then the chairs.
The humourless, deadpan, unrelenting chairs.
They tell you in public speaking camp (well, on YouTube) to calm your nerves by looking for and talking to a friendly face in the crowd. Good tactic. But the friendliness of the faces was not my particular problem. It was their existence.
Finding a face in that sea of upholstery would be like finding a hard-to-find thing in a place full of things that look like, but aren’t, in fact, that thing. (Hey, it’s now 4:12 in the morning. The metaphors aren’t exactly flowing.).
About half way through my now-somehow-obvious-seeming slides, my self-monitoring voice (the inner dick) said, “Doug, why the low energy?” and then answered itself, “Maybe it’s because you’re TALKING TO FURNITURE.”
My inner dicks weren’t just pestering me. They were having their own little side chats while I droned on about trust and confidence and yadda yadda yadda.
Finally, just before the horrible, terrible chairs actually reached the stage, engulfing me in their upholstered mass, making me one of their kind forever and consigning me to an eternity of Powerpoint and monotony, I arrived at my now-ironic Thank You slide.
I grinned, thanked the chairs and hurried off to blush in the men’s room (which, BTW, had more people in it — and more … buzz – than my session.)
I had survived.
The thing I most dread every time I accept an invitation to speak had actually happened and it had not killed me. Nor, it must be said, had it made me stronger. (They never mention the third option: that which doesn’t kill you makes you neurotic and prone to bursting into tears whenever anyone says, ‘Herman Miller’).
Maybe I’m being a bit… negative here.
Maybe the thing went as well as possible under the circumstances. The guy who thought I was Peretti was none the wiser and the Duluth Two asked some good questions.
Ann Handley, who snuck in to lend moral support (what a mensch), texted, ‘Solid. Shame about the room fit.’
Someone else tweeted, “Just saw @dougkessler at #Inbound15. Also caught up on my email.” Which I think was quite positive.
And I got to attend Inbound for free.
It’s a great event. Amazing speakers: Chelsea Goddamn Clinton (brilliant, charming, open). Daniel Amazing Pink (genius, funny, room-owning). Jason What-Just-Happened Miller (a shot of neat adrenalin). Ann ‘The Ann’ Handley (predictably, annoyingly delightful). Tim Washer (SO funny, dry, incisive). Jonah Peretti (Missed him. Heard he was awesome.). The list goes on.
Huge, buzzing crowd.
Great food trucks.
I’d definitely come back next year for the whole event (it won’t be at the same time as Content Marketing World).
But first I need to get over my new chair phobia.
I’m okay with stools and benches.
It’s just chairs.
I should say:
If it sounds like I blame the actually hugely impressive and super-friendly organisers (or Jonah Peretti or the event app glitch) for the lack of crowd, it’s only because I need a reason other than, ‘No one knows who you are or gives a shit about your content marketing insights.’ which, while no-doubt far closer to the truth, is inconsistent with a self-image that I have invested far too much time and energy in assembling and maintaining to simply replace with something more… reality-proof.
Atul Dhakappa | September 14th, 2015
would have been very disappointing..
I was looking forward to be at CMW this year and meet with you, but last minute schedules did not allow me to travel.. maybe some other time..
Ann Handley | September 14th, 2015
First, it wasn’t nearly as bad as you imagined (feared) in your head. The people who WERE there loved it. I know because I was there. You had QUESTIONS at the end, for Pete’s sake. So your audience might’ve been small, but it was engaged.
Second, that chain of security guards… you’re hilarious.
Air kisses to you, my favorite mensch! (Now that I know what that means.)
Jeremy Knight | September 14th, 2015
So that’s why I couldn’t find you. Shame, I was really looking forward to your session. I do hope HubSpot invite you back in 2016 – assuming a more chair free experience is assured! Are you speaking anywhere this Autumn in the UK?
Mike Essex | September 15th, 2015
Congrats on overcoming the inner dicks regardless. This is why speaking at parallel track conferences terrifies me. I always worry I’ll be up against the household name guru who will draw the entire crowd. But hey you never know there may have been your next 10k a month client in that crowd and your deck will probably kill it on Slideshare like they always do 😉
Tom Anthony | September 15th, 2015
Sucks about the app mixup which caused this. 🙁
This scenario has never happened to me, but I have read about it in the excellent ‘Confessions of a Public Speaker’ (http://www.amazon.com/dp/1449301959/?tag=spacewombat-20) – where (as I recall) the advice is to ask the audience to all move up to the front of the room and then you can engage with them better (and remove our mic and/or make it more interactive, depending on audience size).
Thanks for the great post – it is great getting honest insights into these sorts of things from speakers. 🙂
Jonny Watson | September 15th, 2015
Well you smashed it at Silicon beach with that talk – Boston’s loss.
Digital Shoreditch 2015 was much the same experience for me. 7 or 8 plus the AV guy at the back.
Still, it’s on my CV now. They can’t take that away from us!
Dharmesh Shah | September 15th, 2015
OMG, OMG, OMG — I am sooo sorry!
Being somewhat of a public speaker myself (though not quite as talented), I’ve been through similar nightmares. In any case, consider this a gold-plated, personal invitation to speak at #INBOUND16. I will take personal responsibility for promoting your session and filling every freakin’ chair.
Thanks for being such a good sport. Long-time fan, second-time commenter.
Ricardo | September 16th, 2015
Doug, I am a big fan and did not see you on the programme. I take my hat off for having the balls to write about it. Event apps ohhh don’t get me started!!! Every cloud has a silver lining. You now have the personal backing of Mr. Shah himself!! See you at inbound16
Doug Kessler | September 16th, 2015
Wow — I have to share more of my failures! Luckily, failure is my forte.
Dharmesh, thank you for your response.
You may not want to weld your name to my session but I’ll take you up on the offer!
(Next year’s post could be about how I had a packed room… and squandered it).
Susanna James | September 17th, 2015
I was there and I loved your talk! In fact you were one of the speakers I was most excited to see. It was a shame more people didn’t attend, but for those of us who did we are glad we did! Please do come back in 2016 🙂
Nathan O'Shea, All Tub Chairs Uk | November 3rd, 2015
Failures always make us stronger and wiser. Great read.
Rhonda Hurwitz, HMR Marketing Solutions | November 17th, 2015
Just a great read. I actually have seen you speak (at CMWorld) and learned a lot. take that, inner dicks!