The other day I needed to ask for telephone help to access an account I hadn’t used in awhile. I’d forgotten the entry sequence and just wanted a quick, two sentence reminder: “First you do this, then you do that. That’s all there is to it.” Unfortunately, that’s not what I got.
For close to 15 agonizing minutes I sat there biting my nails and listening to the person on the other end of the phone repeat the same information at least twice even though I got it the first time. That was only the beginning.
I had the ill-advised temerity to ask a clarifying question. Big mistake. He had to start again from the beginning and repeat the same information a third time without, it seems, stopping to take a breath. No matter how many times or how loudly I asked him to please stop talking, he never heard me. There was no pause long enough for me to say, “Wait a minute! I got that.” He was paying no attention to me on the other end of the phone at all. I pictured him in a little cubicle somewhere, staring at his computer, in a kind of hypnotic state where the information he was reading off the screen went in through his eyes and out through his mouth, bypassing his brain, and certainly his ears, completely!
Unfortunately, there are public speakers who suffer from the same script blindness.
I once had the misfortune to sit through almost an hour-long ‘talk’ given by a professor at a lunchtime gathering. He was extremely knowledgeable, had been teaching for many years, and obviously knew and loved his material. The part he forgot was that he wasn’t alone in the room.
I could tell that he was enthralled by the ins and outs of his subject and gloried in the sound of his own voice. He read without stopping, only occasionally pausing to take a breath, and looking a bit startled to see us all looking back at him if he happened to accidentally raise his eyes. He quickly looked down at his page again, where he’d carefully kept a finger to mark the place, and kept right on reading. Once or twice, when he did deign to look at us, someone would raise a hand to ask a question. If he noticed, he gave no sign. Down his eyes went again to the place where he’d left off, and he resumed the hypnotic rhythm and cadence of his own voice.
Many members of the audience started to check their cellphones. A few began whispered conversations. A couple fell asleep. One snored and his friend kept elbowing him awake, to no avail. Within a few minutes, one by one people stood up, marched up the aisle and out the back doors. Within another ten minutes, about half the audience had disappeared.
The professor never noticed. He just kept on reading.
Out of curiosity, I stuck it out to the end. There were a handful of us remaining when the professor pronounced his final sentence and looked up for the last time. Was he surprised that there were so few listeners left and almost no applause? He did look a trifle flustered, then gathered his pages and marched stiffly out of the room, without a glance behind. We all filed out quietly and went back to work.
I don’t remember his name or what he spoke about, but I keep the picture of him in my mind as a perfect example of the kind of public speaker I never want to be. He had a gift to give, and an audience that wanted to receive it. And yet, as accomplished an expert in his field as he was, he wasted it all. What a shame!