The Evils Of Public Speaking

For the most part, I like my job at Harvard, but last week something very bad happened. I was asked to give a 45-minute computer training session for a Harvard department. Yes, horror of horrors, I would have to speak in front of an audience. For someone like me, nothing could possibly be worse. And nothing could be worse for the audience either. These unfortunate souls would actually have to hear me drone on for 45 minutes.

I admit that I wasn't well prepared, but it wasn't even supposed to be that big a deal. Originally, I was told there would be a handful of people huddled around a computer. No problem, I thought. I'm used to training one or two people at a time; I can do this. On Thursday, I discovered that there would be eight people -- or maybe it was twelve. I also learned I would be doing this in a classroom with a laptop computer hooked up to a projector. Finally, on Friday, I found myself in a classroom with 23 people staring back at me waiting for a presentation on -- damn -- what was it again? -- oh yeah -- non-employee reimbursement procedures.

Yes, my debut in public speaking was on one of the world's most boring and convoluted subjects -- how to use Harvard's new financial system to process non-employee reimbursements. It was a subject boring enough to make one yearn to be in calculus class or at least at a presidential debate about health care. No, this was not going to be good at all.

I tried to acknowledge the boredom from the start. "Well, here we go, non-employee reimbursements. I bet you can't wait for this," I said sarcastically. It wasn't exactly the funniest thing ever said, but I had hoped for at least a smile. Instead, I got nothing. In fact, I'm pretty sure I saw a few people scowl at me. This was not a good omen.

After I had been stammering through my presentation for only a few minutes, one woman stopped me. "So, do you mean to tell me that every single time someone visits Harvard to give a lecture and needs to be reimbursed that I have to enter them into the system, even if they're never ever going to come to Harvard again. I mean, do you realize that just doubles my work. Are you seriously trying to tell me that I have to do that?"

Long pause.

"Uh ... yeah." And the day just hurtled downhill from there. I think I officially lost them early on during the upper and lowercase part of the presentation. "So on the first line, you need to put the name in all caps with the first name first, but on the next line you don't want the name in caps, and instead the last name has to go first. Otherwise, it won't work," I was forced to tell them.

They may not have been laughing earlier, but they were laughing now, incredulously. "Do you mean to tell me," someone started to ask, and I just nodded. That may as well have been the title of my lecture: "Yes, I mean to tell you."

By now, they could sense weakness, and the questions just flooded in. "Well, won't that affect the tax liability?" one person asked. I had no clue. I'm just a computer person. I don't even know what tax liability is, let alone what affects it.

"And won't the tax office want more information on the paper form?" another person asked.
"Uh, well."
"Earlier, you said the description field didn't really matter, but isn't that actually wrong?"
"Uh, well."
"Mr. Lavin, were you not in fact at the scene of the crime at nine o'clock even though in your deposition you claimed to be at the supermarket? Would it not then be accurate to say that you were lying in that deposition?"
"Uh, well."

Okay, I imagined that last part. In fact, I don't actually remember most of the questions. On some, I confess that I wasn't even listening. I would just hear something about tax liability, and my mind would drift off, thinking: "I don't want to be giving presentations. This isn't a career goal of mine. Why am I here?"

It got worse. Because apparently someone somewhere felt that things weren't going quite badly enough, the laptop I had been given started to die as well. Soon, the arrow on the screen couldn't even keep up with the mouse; several seconds passed between when I moved the mouse and when the arrow onscreen decided to respond. Despite all this, I managed to keep everything working until the end when I tried to click on the submit button. This was to be the final step, but the laptop had a mind of its own. Instead, all the data on the screen suddenly disappeared, for the arrow has been in the wrong spot when I clicked.

Another long pause: "Well, there, I just accidentally clicked on the wrong button. You see, that would be the one button that erases everything. Just as a word of advice, you really don't want to be clicking that button ever."

At this point, I frantically searched for another button to hit -- a self-destruct button or maybe a button that would just make me disappear away from all this. Alas, there were no such buttons. There was, however, a person in the back with a question: "Do you mean to tell me..."

Yes, I'm afraid I did.

Copyright 2000 by Joe Lavin
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Submitted By: Joe Lavin
Mar 8, 2000 12:36

This joke is rated: PG