Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Value of Humor through Adversity-The Mouthwash Incident

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It helps if we can maintain a sense of humor even in the midst of adversity. Adversity doesn't necessarily mean life or death situations but can include life's most embarrassing moments, especially when you take a risk with something like moving away from the podium for the first time or trying on a new story and testing for audience reaction.

This involves a story where the simple act of gargling mouthwash made for one of life's most embarrassing moments made easier through a sense of humor.

Many years ago I was invited to give a talk to a group of distinquished business people in New York City. I was just getting started as a "public" speaker - "public" because I was not paid for my engagements at the time - I'm now considered a "professional" where I DO get paid.

One afternoon in November of 1997, I was invited to speak to “The 100 Club” in New York City. This group was composed of leaders from various industries.

Needless to say, I was really nervous that afternoon because I had never spoken in front of a bunch of distinguished businesspeople. Due to the way their meeting was conducted, I was given time to wander around the facility in an effort to shake off the nervousness. For reasons unknown to me, I often visited the bathroom just prior to a speech to check and recheck my appearance, wipe off any indication of sweat and if available, gargle with mouthwash.

Since “The 100 Club” met in a fancy private club in the middle of Manhattan, their bathrooms were stocked with shaving cream, razors, combs, mouthwash, aftershave lotions, hair gel, gum, breath spray and everything else you can imagine. You name it, they had it.

As I was tightening my tie and making sure it was aligned properly, something on the counter caught my attention. It was an attractive little bottle containing what looked like mouthwash. It was beckoning me to try it.

I thought to myself, “Fresh words will pour out of my tingling clean mouth and I’ll speak with such clarity!”

I poured myself a full cup of this liquid and swished it around my mouth for several minutes, feeling wonderfully happy. Then I spit it out and repeated the process several times.

Satisfied, I put the cap back on the mouthwash container and threw away the cup, took one last look at myself in the mirror and gave myself thumbs up with a wink for good measure.
Just as I was about to leave the men’s room and head out to the ballroom for my speech, I felt something odd happening inside my mouth.

My tongue was swelling! Someone walked past me in the hallway and I wanted to say, “How are you?”, instead what came out was “OW ARH UU.”

Glancing at my watch, I had a few more minutes before the speech. I ran back to the bathroom and picked up the suspicious container. I looked at the label a little closer. It read:

“The Concentrated Mouthwash is for long-lasting fresh breath. More freshness in a glass bottle for less money!!”

I realized with horror that I had just used concentrated mouthwash! You’re not supposed to use it without diluting it with water! I never felt so stupid in my life.

Panic stricken, I grabbed another cup and filled it with cold water and tried to wash away the effect of concentrated mouthwash. I looked at the clock on the wall, “Oh my God, I’ve got to go!”
Heart pounding, licking my mouth like crazy, I ran down the hall to the ballroom. Upon arriving to the door, I placed my hand on the knob, took a deep breath and slowly opened the door.
The club president was finishing up the speaker introduction.

“……and here is Stephen Hopson.”

I stepped on the stage and faced the audience. My tongue was massively swollen and I was beside myself with fear – I didn’t want to open my mouth and sound like an idiot but what choice did I have?

The opening words were embarrassingly unintelligible but somehow I managed to tell them what had just happened. Fortunately the swelling subsided quickly and the rest of the speech went without a hitch.

Guess what the topic was?

“Taking Risks!”

One cannot succeed without taking risks. In fact, in as embarrassing as they may be, they often turn out to be great stories for future speeches. They become your signature stories, your unique stories that no one else can duplicate because they happened to you, not them. They also make for great chapters in a future book such as the one I'm currently writing.

Stories like this often touches the human spirit and allows them to relate to your mishaps. It gives them a powerful reason to keep advancing toward their dreams because when they see that you’ve succeeded despite the risks you’ve taken, it stands to reason that they can do it too.

Let me ask you: What risks have you taken in advancing toward your dreams today?
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