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!