Tuesday, November 13, 2012

13. My First Time.

I had only been full-time for a few months when my boss first asked me to do a benefits presentation at a client's office.  There was no hesitation in my answer.  Sure, I was nervous, but I wanted to grow my skills and I wanted desperately to be seen as a team player.  I knew that the ability to get in front of clients would make me more valuable to the company.  This was my chance to show them how much more I was capable of.

The producer who brought in the client was one I had the utmost respect for and tremendously feared. He was no-nonsense and respected in the community.  About the same age as my parents, I sought his approval and endorsement, even more so than that of my own direct superiors.

The day of the meeting my nerves were starting to get to me.  I arrived at the client a bit too early so I was left alone in the conference room until the employees arrived.  I placed one handout at each seat around a large, heavy table.  It was the kind of table that made me wonder if they had built the glass-enclosed conference room around it since there seemed no way to get it in there.  I was expecting about 20 employees, plus the human resources manager.  I wondered how we'd all fit in this room.

One by one they filed in.  It was a 4:30pm meeting, so they'd all had their fill of the day.  Their weary expressions made clear that I needed to wrap this presentation up quickly.

After giving my name and my company, I asked the group to hold questions until the end, certain I'd cover most of their concerns.  I inhaled deeply and began.

"A Flexible Spending Account is very simply a plan that allows you to set money aside out of your paycheck on a pre-tax basis to reimburse yourself for out of pocket medical and/or dependent day care expenses."

The words rolled off my tongue, just as I'd practiced.  I began to talk about Section 125 of the IRS Code, the types of medical expenses that are tax deductible and the rules surrounding plan years, irrevocability of benefit elections and how to access their funds.  I was sure I sounded relaxed and intelligent.  I was waiting for my audience to get the glazed-over expression everyone back at the office assured me I'd receive. 

A gentleman to my right raised his hand and interrupted me before I could acknowledge him.  He asked me a question I was moments away from covering if only he had waited.  I answered him and, in doing so, opened the floodgates to more inquiries.  By the time the group settled down and I was ready to resume speaking, panic struck.

I only knew the presentation in order.  Suddenly I felt so unprepared.  I was out of sequence and I couldn't get myself back on track once derailed.

Then someone asked the one question I feared most.

"Isn't it true," he asked, "that these plans have the Use It or Lose It rule so if I don't claim MY money, YOU keep it."  He leaned back in his chair, arms folded across his chest and an arrogant look in his eye.

I explained that the rule did exist but that funds stayed within his company, not mine.  I shifted the focus, as taught, to planning wisely at open enrollment so he could avoid forfeitures.

"So, what you're saying is that you want me to sign up for this so my company can steal my paycheck."

"No, that's not what I'm saying," I replied.  Everyone was starting to mutter and shuffle papers.  I'd lost them.  The HR manager motioned to jump in.  I was relieved he was going to save me.

"Listen, these plans are a racket.  It wasn't my idea to add it.  You can join it if you want, but I'm not going to."  He turned back to me.  "Do you want to finish?"

Finish I did, holding back tears of humiliation.

As I sat at my desk the next morning, my stomach churned knowing I was going to have to face the music.  I watched the clock and grew more and more ill as it crept toward the time I knew the lead producer would arrive.

"Michelle." I knew his voice. He always said my name like a statement as he approached.  Never a question to request my attention, always a command.

I turned around to look him in the eyes.  He looked irritated. I probably looked terrified.

"So I hear it didn't go too well yesterday," he was calm.  Scary calm.

"No, it didn't. They ripped me apart.  I'm really sorry.  I hope I didn't ruin everything there for you," I was about to cry.  If there's one way to solidify your position as an inept, non-professional, it's to cry as you are reprimanded. 

The producer grinned a shit-eating grin like no other.

"Well, I'm glad it happened.  You got your first awful meeting out of the way.  They can only get better from here."

"I guess so," I said, so surprised I could not feel relief.  Was he really letting me off the hook?

"They are jerks over there.  They told me you held up pretty well under attack.  Now you'll be prepared for next time.  Good job."  Then he walked away.

I exhaled for the first time since he approached.

After that, I never let anyone take control of my meetings.  I practiced the tough questions and I came up with answers for anything they could throw at me.  I learned to say I didn't know with grace and learned to cover a blunder with humor.  I learned to hold my head up high and speak with confidence, no matter what.

***
Yesterday, fifteen years later, I began another presentation  Everyone looked friendly, but it didn't matter.  Things could never go as badly as they did my first time.



I'm linking up again with the good folks at Yeah Write.  Check it out!

34 comments:

  1. I know the feeling so well of learning a presentation in order, and not knowing where to go once you are thrown off track. It is such a scary, helpless feeling. Good for you for plowing through, and I am glad that you had an understanding boss with a sense of humor!

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    1. It was awful. Those people were so mean! I'm certain they saw how young I was and pounced. I've since done hundreds of these meetings, but never has one been as bad as that!

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  2. I loved this and could relate. I have given a ton of presentations and that first time out when you aren't covered by the experience of having done it a 100 times before can be rough.

    I like how you showed it to us here.

    P.S. I like FSAs, have used them for years.

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    1. FSAs, used wisely, are an excellent tool. My entire career has been built around administering them and other insurance and pre-tax benefits. Aren't I lucky ;)

      Thanks for the kind words on the writing too!

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  3. Oh my goodness, that sounds terrifying! I have never held that type of job, but someone has to! Great job at going back and conquering. :)

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    1. Yes I often think of my job as a "someone has to do it" sort of endeavor! No really, it's not all bad but that meeting was the worst!

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  4. What a great post. Wonderful boss response to a tough meeting. Way to handle it!

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    1. Thanks! That man was always in my corner over the years. I'm glad to have known him!

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  5. omg - i remember too well my days of presentations. sometimes i practiced to a disadvantage.. and all too remember the anxiety of losing my place. i remember one meeting trying to talk my way back, having absolutely no idea what i was saying. terrifying. i could throw up thinking about it. haha. thanks for bringing me back. :)

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    1. I've definitely rambled in my day too! And I'm glad my post made you want to puke. That's always what I'm going for ;)

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  6. Great post Michelle! It's funny how people can be so skeptical about flex spending. It's a good thing if you guess the amount right! We've done it every year we were eligible! It does get easier getting up in front of people over time. I'm glad your boss was so cool!

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    1. I'm glad it worked out too. He is a great guy! I have flex spending on the brain these days because it's still what I do. I explain it more often than I care to though!

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  7. that sucks but it sounds like you learned a valuable lesson!

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  8. I applaud you! I could never do that kind of job or presentation and i would have flipped when they started questioning and being jerky. No way I would have finished--I would have walked out! Good for you. :)

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    1. I was more afraid of getting in trouble at work than what else they'd say to me at the meeting. I never really minded public speaking, but they really did shake my confidence for a while!

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  9. Now that's initiation by fire! I bet you were so happy to have it behind you!

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  10. Good job -- with the meeting and the post. And sheesh, way to make you sweat! I hate hecklers...

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    1. Thanks. I hate hecklers too. I mean really. Do you really need to give the girl trying to tell you about your benefits a hard time? Come on.

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  11. Wow! I hope one day I can get to your level of comfort with presentations. I go completely blank to the point that I don't even know what I'm saying, so I have to write out precisely what I'm going to say ahead of time and read it (I try to memorize it enough that I can at least look up once in awhile). If I lose my place, it's over.

    Especially at the beginning of my career I think I would have cried, either in the presentation or afterward. Possibly both. Great job conveying your emotions - I felt shaky just reading about it!

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    1. There were many tears shed that night when I got home! It's funny, I'd rather speak in front of strangers than people I know. Thanks for your comment!

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  12. Yikes! I'm glad it came full circle. I was in sales and tanked so many presentations. But it's true after the first the rest are never as bad. Loved this and I was nervous!

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    1. You need to teach me your secret...I'm trying to find my footing at work.

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    2. Thanks! I still had less than spectacular ones, but nothing as bad as that.

      My secret? Act like you know exactly what you're talking about. People smell fear. If you sound confident, even when you are saying you aren't sure but you'll find out, people trust that you will do your job correctly. Confidence (not arrogance, mind you) is your greatest asset to getting a crowd to trust you. Good luck Tomekha!

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  13. First times suck for almost everything -- disappointingly even sex. I love that "shit-eating grin" line, but I'm really glad he was right behind that grin and things really did get better from there.

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  14. It's always wonderful to start out with a boss who has high expectations and a willingness to go beyond training to mentoring.

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  15. The best thing you can ask for in life is a boss that let's ya have a shitty time and still supports you. Why you're still doing it all these years later!! A post with which we can all relate!!

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    1. Yes. He knew I was upset enough, he didn't need to yell at me. If it had happened again though I'm sure he'd be furious!

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  16. What a great boss! You had me so scared for you. I'm glad he was supportive and turned it into a constructive, learning experience.

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    1. It did turn out well. Could have been so much worse!

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  17. Wow! The phrase "getting thrown into the deep end" springs to mind. I'm glad you made it through that. I hate it when people are jerks for no reason. Sure, they might not like your product and that's fine but no need to take the pitchforks and torches to an individual sales rep. Yeesh. I'm so glad you had a supportive boss.

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