The Man at the Back of the Room

Last week I addressed the Institute of Management Consultants on the topic of building a business based on Intellectual Property. As I entered the venue a man in a neat uniform approached me with a friendly smile and asked if I would like something to drink.

After surveying the room, I realised there were many more seats than the number of people expected. The chairs were also jammed close together so I started to move things around. The waiter returned with my mineral water and asked what I was trying to achieve in moving the chairs. I explained how I don’t like empty chairs in a presentation because I feel they suck the energy from the room and I hate seeing people crammed in straight lines like caged chickens. He listened carefully and said I should leave it to him. Sure enough he efficiently set to work rearranging the room exactly as I wanted it, while removing the superfluous chairs and also looking after the drink needs of the guests. There were three other waiters on duty, but none helped him with the chairs.

This freed me to attend to other preparations. Soon he checked back with me. Was I happy with the seating and did I want another drink? He’d done a superb job. The chairs were spaced evenly apart in gentle curves that created a pleasant intimate feel. And yes I did want another drink. A little while later as I was about to commence my talk I noticed a fresh glass of mineral water sitting next to my notes.

The power of paying attention

Whenever I give a presentation I pay close attention to the audience and the atmosphere in the room. I notice who is taking notes, who is distracted, who is engaged and who is still sizing me up. In larger venues I also notice whether the audio technicians are paying attention in case I need them to adjust the lights or sound. What I noticed during my 90 minute talk at the RACV Club that evening was, every time I looked at the back of the room, this particular waiter seemed to be listening attentively to everything I was saying.

After the presentation was over and I was talking with some of the participants, a familiar voice politely asked if I’d like a glass of mineral water or something else to drink. My attentive friend quickly returned with a drink and a beautifully arranged plate of assorted canapés. “I noticed you weren’t eating anything before your talk so I put this together for you” he said as he handed me the plate. I was hungry and certainly grateful for the food, but I was more grateful for the focus and care he’d shown throughout the evening.

The room was filled with many consultants who I am sure would regard themselves as proud professionals, but the outstanding professional in my view was the waiter. As I left I made a point of thanking him. “No the thanks is to you” he said. “That was a great talk — I learned a lot!”

As I wandered toward the elevator I reflected on the talk, the audience and the man at the back of the room. His concentration and attentiveness had added that extra magical touch to the room and I am sure it had helped to bring the best out of me. It reminded me of the subtle but powerful impact that paying attention and really doing your job well can have on others.

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