Five Lessons in a Jar of Jam

Last week I was in Oxford, England. What a fantastic little city! Wonderful architecture and jam-packed with history.

Speaking of jam … I spent one day strolling around the University of Oxford campus with my daughter. At one point, we came across this lovely little store selling all kinds delicious chutneys and jams. I thought these would make nice gifts (and some of them would go very well with my wife’s cooking). So I picked up a few jars. Eleven, to be precise. You can see all the mouth-watering flavours in the photo.

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As my daughter had to stay in Oxford for a few days, I returned to Geneva by myself. Now, given that my trip was brief, I only took carry-on luggage. But no problem, I thought, there’s plenty of room in my carry-on for the jam and chutney.

Not a good idea. Those of you who have flown anywhere in the last decade will doubtless have come across the “100 ml” rule. Basically, you cannot take liquids, creams, gels, etc. on board unless they are in 100 ml containers and can all fit in clear plastic 1 litre bag.

I travel a lot. I know this rule. I can navigate an airport with George-Clooney-Up-in-the-Air efficiency. Packing 11 (big) jars of chutney and jam in a carry-on bag was a quintessential rookie traveller’s mistake! And it had never crossed my mind until I stepped off the bus that brought me to Gatwick Airport. It was one of those moments where your heart sinks when you’ve made a classic boneheaded move. But the experience turned out to be a good reminder of five important public speaking (and life) lessons.

1. Don’t forget the fundamentals

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve given a presentation, you can still forget something as basic as the charger for your computer or the phone number of your contact at the venue. In the days before your presentation, take time to go over all the things that you will need. This checklist should help.

2. Arrive early

When it comes to airports and public speaking engagements, my philosophy is the same. I want to arrive early. I don’t want to be sprinting in and out of passengers trying to get to the gate and I don’t want to be faced with problems 5 minutes before I am scheduled to go on stage.

When you arrive early, if problems arise — forgetting something, technical issues, parking, etc. — you should have time to solve the problem or make the necessary adjustments. And if you have more time than you need, so much the better. You can relax with a coffee, review your notes, chat with the organizers or whatever.

Because I arrived at Gatwick well before my flight, I had sufficient time to figure out a way to solve my predicament.

3. Consider your options systematically

As I am fond of telling my daughters, every problem has a solution. You just have to figure it out. In Gatwick, I ran through my options:

  • Option 1: Run the bag through security and hope that nobody notices.
  • Option 2: Try to persuade Security to let me take the jars on board.
  • Option 3: Mail the jam and chutney home.
  • Option 4: Eat the jam and chutney.
  • Option 5: Give the jam and chutney away.
  • Option 6: Find someone on the same flight and have them put it in their luggage.
  • Option 7: Check my bag and face a potentially expensive late check-in fee.

I ruled out Option 1 because success was unlikely and the jam and chutney would be lost. I ruled out Option 3 because it would be time-consuming and cumbersome. I ruled out Option 4 because I didn’t want to be sick. I ruled out Options 5 and 6 because who in their right mind accepts packages from complete strangers in airports these days?

That left Options 2 and 7. I spoke to two Security agents and showed them the goods. I tried to convince them that chutney and jam were neither liquids nor gels nor creams. It was a valiant effort but it was a no go. So that left me with Option 7. Resignedly, I got into the line of people waiting to drop off their bag.

When you are faced with an unexpected problem when presenting — and they will occur — you can usually solve the problem or find a workaround. Just carefully go through your options.

4. Maintain your composure at all times

As the line slowly meandered along, I struck up a conversation with a nice couple from England behind me. They commiserated with my predicament, mentioned a story when they had had goods confiscated for similar reasons and politely refused my offer of some chutney. (I told you nobody will accept a package from a stranger in an airport!)

Eventually, I reached the front of the line, which forked into two short lines.  I then did what we all do: I scanned the faces of the agents at the counter, looking for the friendliest one and hoping that she would be free next. And there she was! Directly in front of me. Friendly face and a lovely smile. And suddenly she was free!

I stepped forward but the elderly couple to my left began to slowly move forward as well. We all stopped. I looked at them; they looked at me; I looked at the woman behind the counter; she looked back and smiled. I thought, the jam isn’t that big of a deal. I told the couple to go ahead and I got another big smile from the woman behind the counter.

When you are invited to speak, you are “on stage” from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave. You have to behave professionally at all times. It is easy to be calm and friendly and upbeat when everything is going well; the true test of a person’s character is how they behave when things are not going smoothly. Stay cool.

5. Ask for help if you need it

They say that, in life, what goes around comes around. Well, it must be true because wouldn’t you know it, but the elderly couple were in and out in a flash and the friendly-looking young woman was once again free. So I stepped forward and returned her smile with one of my own.

“Hi there,” I said. “I’ve run into an unexpected problem and I wonder if you might be able to help me.” I explained the situation and said that I hoped that we could keep the late check-in fee reasonable. She said, “Let’s have a look at the bag.” When she saw that it was not big, she said, “Oh, just give it here. We can check in, no charge.” I told her how much I appreciated her help, how she had given the kind of service that would keep me coming back as a customer and I wished her a Merry Christmas. We were both happy.

We all need a little help from time to time. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. (And remember the help that you have received the next time someone asks you for a hand.)

So there you have it: a careless mistake; five lessons; and a happy ending. But for now, the toast has just popped out of the toaster, so if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll try some of that rhubarb and ginger jam.

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  1. John, what a wonderful post and what wise comments. These are insights all public speakers should keep in mind. Thanks, as always, for your great work.

    1. Thanks, Rob. Glad you enjoyed the post. I thought about saying that I found myself in a “sticky situation” but I resisted the urge. All the best for a Merry Christmas and a great 2014.

  2. What a nice post. I actually saw your post originally on linkin via Olivia! Well, I really enjoyed reading it. Not only was it funny but it also included excellent tips.
    Who knew you could get that far with jam?

  3. I love the way you have crafted such a wonderful and insightful story from an everyday event.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. Much appreciated. I try and remind myself that every time I have a problem, I might come out of it with a good story!

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