Tuesday 29 January 2008

Talking to empty seats. Sneaking out on a blind speaker. Disaster Czar's talk was just that

It is probably a myth, but, I believe there was an age when people had time to be polite. Snoozin' with eyes wide open through a bum numbing lecture in a hot sticky classroom. A neighbour with out-of-focus vacation pictures from Disney World. A door-to-door salesman pitching crap. When there is nothing better to do, and you believe that life is endless, then why not do the right thing and listen to the babble of people you don't know, talking about things you don't care about. In the old days politeness ruled. Not any more.

Take two breakfast events that I attended in the past two weeks. First there was inspirational talk given by a blind boat salesman (and award-winning yachtsman) at the Toronto International Boat Show. And then there was a very embarrassing breakfast lecture given by Ontario's Emergency Response Czar (Jay Hope, Ontario Deputy Minister of Emergency Planning & Management).

Vince Morvillo, is an unsighted entrepreneur who came to the Toronto International Boat Show in early January to speak to boating business leaders at an industry breakfast. In my opinion the Canadian boating industry is in serious decline. Rising fuel costs, shocking sticker prices for new motors and boats, a wonky currency market, environmental concerns about the sport, Canadian branch plants being downsized or closed and a growing public resentment towards personal watercraft, has the industry nervously looking over its shoulder.

The breakfast was staged, in part, to release a document optomistically titled "The Big Splash" -- The Economic Impact of Recreational Boating in Canada: 2006 Summary Report. Over 200 people (and that included the dreaded media) were there to hear the state of boating in Canada.

The report was commissioned by Sandy Currie, the former head of the Canadian Marine Manufacturing Association. Currie, it seemed to me, had been at the head of the association since before the advent of the outboard motor. He was dumped from his job in late October '07 by the industry heads who sit on the CMMA. It appears as though the CMMA is being wound down in favour of the NMMA -- the American parent association -- yet another Canadian institution lost to American financial interests.

The report was delivered by Rick Layzell the CMMA Chairman and a top official with Yamaha Motor Canada Ltd. It was a cut and dry power point reading of the high points of the highly edited slick 16-page financial summary. The news was almost all good. So positive was the news that it just wasn't believable. You can't fudge the facts, but, there was little comparsion with data from previous years and with other well known studies. What information that was released that morning was in stark contrast to very gloomy reports conducted by other private Canadian firms.

Layzell was loud and brief. Neither the industry leaders nor the press were given a chance to ask questions. After 10-minutes on stage, Layzell disappeared and a blind Vince Morvillo took to the podium. Morvillo is an accomplished motivational speaker. He is currently making the rounds at boatshows across North America. It is a positive message that he delivers .... if I can sell boats, so can you! If you are honest, know your product and are engaged with your customers, business can only get better.

Morvillo has obviously given his talk a lot of times to a lot of breakfasts across the continent. Trouble is, he has given them in communities where people have more time to listen to amusing stories about the tribulations of being a sightless salesman. In a 24-hour city like Toronto, the auidence was not prepared to sit through a 30-minute sales talk, no matter how amusing the speaker was. Given that the state of the union for the industry was delivered in 10-minutes, the inspirational lecture lost its oomph somewhere around the 3-minute mile marker.

I was taking pictures of the speaker when he told a story about how it was very important for a salesman to connect with a potential customer. " I kept talking and talking to a man and woman who were intertested in buying a boat. After a few minutes I noticed it was very quiet, I realized that the couple had snuck quietly away." he recalled. "I was pitching to thin air!" The story got a big laugh, but, suddenly a row of light bulb went off in a lot of peoples' brains. The picture above shows a woman shushing her daughter as they tip toed out of Morvillo's talk. He never heard them leave. Dozen followed. I should have done the same. By the time it was over, the CMMA spokespeople I wanted to quiz had magically vanished too. It was just me, the blind man and his long suffering wife. We clapped for 200.

Second breakfast? The Canadian News Wire Group held its first breakfast talk of the new year in late January. The CNW breakfasts are usually great events -- you learn a lot, its quick, interesting and if you feel like it, offords an opportunity to network, network, network. For the most part the events are attend by PR types - overpaid corporate communicators - people who use CNW to send out media releases to the media.

Jay Hope, Ontario's new Deputy Minister of Emergency Planning & Management was there to speak about "Crisis Communications Planning". Hope is the most senior black officer in the Ontario Provincial Police. In my Caribana world he is a God. His halo slipped a bit at the CNW breakfast.

Hope got up, told a few jokes about his wife and then started to criticize the media. You get things wrong, You slow down disaster response by getting in the way blah, blah, blah. This went on, with pictures of Katrina and SARS for 30-minutes.

For the 250 people in attendance, it became evident -- really quickly -- that Hope didn't know who he was talking to. He probably thought that since CNW stood for Canadian News Wire, we must all be journalists. It was deer-in-headlight embarassing. I felt sorry for the guy and I didn't want to be there when someone finally got around to telling him he had brought the wrong speech.
People soon took to checking their email on blackberries, firing off text messages and, at the table next to me, doing the Globe and Mail crossword.

A woman in the audience kicked off the question period. She politely told him she was a communications specialist, not a journalist, and then asked what advice he could give her about handling a disaster from the corporate side. Hope didn't listen. His answer was again, all about what a reporter should or shouldn't ask. She tried one final time, telling him he obviously didn't understand the question. He said he would try again to answer her question. For the second time he talked about her role as a journalist in covering a disaster. People had been trickling out before the dialogue between the two began. After that answer it became a pinstripe parade. At the door I was almost knee capped by a glazed eye communicator wielding an overactive briefcase and talking on his phone. All I heard was "I'm outta here" as he blew by me out the door.

I felt sorry for both speakers. At the boat show, the blind motivator was being used as cannon fodder for an industry that didn't want attendees to ask questions in a public forum. They were happy that he took time to same the same thing over and over and over again. It gave their executive time to disappear without having to answer questions. For Hope, it was probably a sloppy staffer who didn't take time to figure out who their boss was going to be talking to, or was looking for an opportunity to make him look bad in front of corporate Canada.

The biggest loser? Politeness. People tried ( well, a little bit), to be polite and listen. But, in both cases, given the time management pressures that all of us feel working here in the "Big Smoke, we all realised that time was better spent elsewhere even if it meant walking out on a sightless speaker and a clueless policeman.