Failing Successfully: Stumbling into Success

By Barry Maher


Embarrassing moments are an occupational hazard for speakers. Isn’t why so many people are so deathly afraid of public speaking? But embarrassing moments can often make a presentation more successful rather than less.

I was doing my Filling the Glass keynote for a convention that happened to be at a hotel where I’d worked before and knew the manager, a somewhat shy but extremely conscientious individual. Though this was normally a great venue, they were having one of those days. Everything that could go wrong had: wrong room set up, not enough seating, wrong audio/visual, a sound system that kept cutting out, a cord microphone with a cord so short that it kept me tethered in one corner of the platform. The meeting planner and I spent the 90 minutes before the presentation trying to get the situation straightened out with little success. The hotel had also posted the wrong room on all their meeting boards and on the in-house TV, so people kept dashing in late.

I turned the problems into a running, self-deprecating joke at my own expense. That generated a lot of sympathy, the keynote came off extremely well, and I got a huge ovation. Then, as scheduled, I went out into the hallway to sign books of my new book, also titled Filling the Glass, during the break before the next session. A coffee and tea service had been ordered. But when the doors opened we saw that, in atonement for all the problems, the manager had supplied a complete brunch buffet including huge glass bowls filled with strawberries, and, right beside the table where I was to be signing books, the largest pyramid of champagne glasses I had ever

A chef dressed all in white was standing on the table next to the glasses. As we watched, he began to fill the topmost glass with champagne. It filled and overflowed, the champagne cascading down and filling the glasses on the levels below. While the entire convention gathered around him enraptured—working up a thirst—he poured bottle after bottle into the top glass, and eventually every glass from top to bottom was filled.

Then the hotel manager himself appeared before the pyramid. Obviously a bit embarrassed, somewhat flustered and unused to public speaking, he nevertheless called for everyone’s attention. He made a short but gracious speech apologizing for the day’s problems, assuring the group that the hotel was at fault rather than the association or the speaker. He got a laugh or two, and as his remarks went on he seemed to gain confidence. He added a few very kind words about me, and concluded with a flourish, “With his new book, Filling the Glass just released, I’d though it would be appropriate to fill all your glasses with champagne. So we could all raise a glass to Barry and to the success of his wonderful book.”

Then, apparently caught up in the moment, he reached over grabbed the first glass his hand encountered. Unfortunately it was in the middle of the pyramid. There was a quick gasp from the crowd, then a millisecond of complete silence, followed immediately by the sound of breaking glass and spilling champagne.

The strawberries were delicious, the brunch wonderful. Everyone had forgotten and forgiven the earlier problems. From that point on, the manager and the hotel were looked upon with nothing but affection. More important, the group was energized, a coherent whole rather than the collection of strangers they’d been initially. They all had the perfect conversation starter for their networking.

I consider myself a pretty darn good keynoter and my Filling the Glass keynote did go over very well that day. But I have to admit that that spilling the glass went over even better. And probably had even more to do with the success of that convention.

Embarrassment came quite a bit closer to home when I was on stage recently at a Los Angeles hotel, finishing up a keynote at an awards dinner for about 400 salespeople. The audience and I were in formal dress, and just as I was concluding my hour of “real world tactics and reality-based motivation,” I noticed for the first time that I’d neglected to pull up the fly on my tuxedo pants. What was worse, the audience noticed me noticing it.

I quickly put on a face of comic surprise, and the audience roared. Then, as the laughter died down, I leaned against the podium, nodded knowingly, and said, ”Remember the strategies we’re discussed this evening, remember all the tips and tactics. But above all remember that none of them mean a thing. . . if you don’t remember to close.”

With that I thanked them and walked off the stage. I got a standing ovation, and for the rest of the evening people were discussing whether or not I’d planned the whole incident.  Whenever they asked me, I just smiled.


Barry Maher speaks, consults and writes on professional development, motivation, management and sales. Filling the Glass: The Skeptic’s Guide to Positive Thinking in Business was recently cited by Today’s Librarian as “[One of] The Seven Essential Popular Business Books.”



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