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Never Assume, Always Confirm: Lessons Learned the Hard Way
By Chris King

Recently, a speaker friend shared the following story with me. She had been hired for her regular fee by a company in the Midwest. Living in California, she assumed that they were going to pay her air fare.

Wrong! When she reviewed her notes (she hadn't requested a contract - another wrong), she realized that they had told her that they would pick her up at the airport and cover the costs of room and food, but not air transportation. The company assumed that she probably had accumulated frequent flyer miles that she could use for the trip. In this case both assumed, without confirming, which started the whole engagement in a state of discomfort - not good for either party.

As both a speaker and a storyteller, I have faced more uncomfortable situations than I care to remember. Hopefully, however, by sharing some of these mishaps with you, I will convince you to "never assume, always confirm."

First and foremost, make sure that when being asked to present - even if it is an unpaid presentation for your company - that you cover all the details up front. It is a good idea to have a list of questions prepared and after reviewing your conversation with the meeting planner that you have answered all of them in writing. Even if a mistake is made by the person contacting you, you will be remembered as the one who "screwed up." For example, I had been asked to tell stories in a local school during the "Right to Read Week." The woman who contacted me sounded a little "flaky" which should have been a tip-off.

We set the time for 1:30 p.m. and, as I always attempt to do, I arrived early at about 1:10 p.m. The woman in the office did not greet me cheerfully as I expected. She angrily said, "You were supposed to tell stories this morning at 10 a.m. We didn't have your phone number and the teachers and children were really disappointed and upset. Where were you?" Of course, I tried to explain, to no avail. I learned from that lesson that even if I have set everything up, it is a good idea to call and confirm any date, time and venue the day before.

Another important confirmation to make is that you have the correct address and directions for the presentation's location. Nowadays, with Yahoo maps, I call up the address and driving directions to that address from my home. Yahoo even gives you an idea of how long it will take you to arrive. They do make a disclaimer, however, that they may have made a mistake, so I suggest that you confirm the directions with the person you check with the day prior to your presentation. I would say that 90% of the time the Yahoo maps and directions are perfect, but in all my travels it has happened to me twice - and in the evening when it is dark and the location is out in the country - that the directions were backwards. Thank goodness I had left early both times and was just on time, but, as you can imagine, a bit harried when I arrived.

Don't assume that you know what is expected from you or that the audience will consist of the group that is described to you by the meeting planner. I have found that I will get a whole new picture of the attendees, and thus a different direction to move in, if I get some names of people I can speak with beforehand. Don't take up too much of their time - have a list of pertinent questions ready. All of this prior preparation will help you establish rapport before you speak and also signal to the group that you are a professional and are sincere in your desire to fulfill your role. Also, the people you speak with will be flattered that you chose to talk with them prior to the gathering.

Don't assume that the room where you will be speaking and that the sound system and/or projector will work the way you envision them. The more details in this area that you can iron out, the better. Confirm that there is a microphone and that it will be the type you prefer. Don't assume that the PowerPoint program on your laptop will work with their LCD projector. I always have my program on a CD and a cassette, just in case. I started doing this after attending a meeting where we couldn't get the speaker's laptop to work and she did not have a disk to transfer it to a working laptop.

In that vein, always be prepared to give your presentation without the visuals/slides. Again, even if it is their equipment that is malfunctioning, you will be remembered as not being prepared properly. This is one of the main reasons I like to arrive early, so that if there are problems with the setup, I have some leeway for correcting them. I have had a brand new projector bulb blow up, and because we had assumed this wouldn't happen to a new projector, we didn't have a backup bulb. I have arrived at a school to tell stories in what I had assumed would be a large auditorium with a sound system to find myself in a huge gymnasium with a high-ceiling and no amplification system. Now, I always confirm.

In your contract - yes, I definitely recommend having a contract - cover the extra unforeseen difficulties that might occur. For example, what will happen if the weather is so bad the event is cancelled, your flight is late or cancelled, or you just can't get there? What guarantees will be in place - will you be able to reschedule, or do you have to return any of the upfront fee you have already received? I feel that the more eventualities that are spelled out, the less chance there is that they will occur - that old and beloved Murphy's Law.

Realize, however, that no matter how careful and prepared you are in advance, there will be adventures that are completely out of your control. Years and years ago, I gave flower arranging programs. I would talk about design as I created huge, modern arrangements. I was hired to give my program in a small town by their only garden club. It was scheduled to take place in the Town Hall. When I arrived the president of the group told me breathlessly that there had been a mix-up and that another group would be in the Town Hall. I asked her if anyone in the group had a garage with lighting or a large recreation room. "No," she answered, "but I do have a porch." It was a small, small screened in porch with just enough room for a small table where I created the arrangements. The club members sat in the kitchen looking out the windows, and as I would complete a design, I would place it out in the yard. Yes, the show must go on, and no amount of confirming would have helped in this situation. They did love the presentation, however, and it gave me a great and humorous story that I have told to many audiences.

I am sure that all of us could go on for pages describing those times when we assumed and didn't confirm. I would love to hear about them from you. I could even compile them in an article. Not only would they serve as lessons, but I am sure that we would all get a good laugh from them - after the fact, of course. So send me your FEEDBACK!

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