People of a certain age may remember MP Denis Healey’s comment that being criticised by Geoffrey Howe in the House of Commons was ‘like being savaged by a dead sheep’.
Well, today I am hoping for a similar experience. While the Olympians parade through London to universal acclaim, I will be doing a work presentation to a group of patient (as in the noun, not the adjective) representatives – introducing them to a new NHS service that is intended to improve their health care.
On the face of it, they sound like a harmless bunch of mainly senior citizens. But I have already been warned to watch out for Mary, ‘the one who looks like a sweet old lady but goes for the jugular’; and Harry, ‘who will eat you alive if he doesn’t like what you’re saying’. So while I would like to think that they will savage me like dead sheep, rather than ravening wolves, I’m not over-confident.
This happy prospect made me think about my talks as a writer. Those audiences are anything but hostile – the worst that can happen is that a sweet old lady (usually in the front row, in full view of the speaker) falls asleep. Many of them share my passion for Jane Austen and give me every encouragement. If it’s a Women’s Institute talk, then I often have to judge a competition – anything from ‘oldest book’ to ‘best rose’ – but it’s hardly high-risk (provided I make a quick getaway afterwards).
Of course, if you put the same gentle people in the arena of the NHS they may well react like Mary and Harry to protect their interests. And who could blame them, when it might literally be a matter of life or death?
Have any of you ever had particular challenges as a speaker – or as a member of the audience?
PS If I don’t survive today’s presentation, it was lovely knowing you …