A local businessperson contacted me recently. He’d heard about me from work I’d done on a local board of trade a few years before. He was asked to deliver a 20-minute speech by a trade organization he was a member of. They wanted him to provide his take on new developments in his industry.
He was clearly terrified. He’d never spoken before a large crowd before. And not only had he never written a speech before, he’d never even written the one-paragraph description of his company for his Web site. His secretary did that. Unfortunately, she was not a speech writer.
He called me into his office and for a short while, everything seemed to be going well. He had no problem with my fee; he even agreed to pay half of it up front. Then things started getting strange. He handed me a folder containing articles from trade magazines. He pointed out two or three of them “that had some meat in them.” I started to ask him what points he wanted to address. He mentioned one or two innovations he thought were “cool” and said that the folder would explain them all. And then suddenly, seven minutes later, the meeting was over. He had to be somewhere. As he escorted me out the door, he added, almost as an afterthought, could I “stick a little humor” in the speech, preferably at the beginning?
That was it. I was to get back to him by Friday. Two days. I watched him rush out the door, telling his secretary he’d be back sometime after five.
I felt like a plumber who was shown the way to a leaky toilet and had the door shut behind him. I called him up the next morning and said that although I’d read the folder contents, I really needed to talk to him a little while longer. We needed to go over the points he wanted to emphasize. Maybe the slant I took wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was completely out of the ballpark. I also needed to hear him talk, maybe even record him briefly, to get a sense of how he phrased things. This would help me make the speech seem natural. Most importantly, I needed to get a sense of his sense of humor. “Humor is subjective,” I said. “What I might think is funny, you might not.”
He sighed long and hard. “How long would this take?” “An hour at least,” I said.
This time he groaned. “Not gonna happen,” he said.
“Excuse me?” This wasn’t sounding good.
“Can we do it now? I can give you five minutes.”
As much as I would have liked this job, I politely turned it down, right then. I said that without his collaboration–that was the word I used, not what a plumber would say–we couldn’t proceed. I would keep giving him unsatisfactory results because I’d just be guessing. We’d end up spending more time correcting my not-quite-right speech assumptions and my way-off sense of humor impressions.
I’m glad I did it. I wasted less than an hour of my time filtering out a job that would have taken far more time because it would have had to have been redone, possibly several times. Results would have been substandard. I would have ended up doing the client and myself a disservice. There’s no excuse for that.