Most Expensive. Speech. Ever.

Most Expensive. Speech. Ever.

By Michael E. Raynor



Michael E. Raynor headshotWhen The Three Rules came out last May, I had high hopes for the book I co-authored. I’d like to think my level of expectation was born of the excellence of the work, but in truth, having spent five years on the project, wanting, hoping for (maybe even expecting!) success was inevitable. As you might have heard, we love most those things for which we suffer most (that’s why we all love our kids so much), and boy, did I suffer for this book.

Through the summer and fall, the book got some modicum of attention, but not as much as I’d hoped. (Although, I have to admit, anything short of carving its ISBN on Mount Rushmore would have fallen short, given my internal hype cycle.)

And then in October, I got a slot at a credible TEDx event at the University of Nevada at Reno (UNR). One of the profs at the business school, Bret Simmons, had stumbled upon the book and had even written a nice review on Amazon. He organized UNR’s TEDx, and when one of the local folks on the agenda dropped out, I was in.

I’d done a TEDx in the past, but as you might have heard, and as I can now attest, there is considerable variation in the production values of these things, and my first TEDx event was pretty low-key, which is putting it charitably.

This UNR event was clearly a cut above, though, and I got it in my head that if I threw myself into it, the book would finally break through and get the recognition it deserves.

A TEDx talk is very different from the standard “book talk.” Typically, I have a general argument that is sign-posted with twenty or thirty slides that takes an hour or more to work through—the “edutainment” that is the corporate-lecture circuit.

(That’s not a criticism, just a statement of fact. To invoke Marshall McLuhan, “anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either one.”)

Now, however, I needed to have a tightly rehearsed sub-fifteen-minute soliloquy that sounded spontaneous and intimate.

Thus began about six weeks of reading and thinking and note-taking, and to my surprise, I discovered an entirely new way of talking about a topic I’d already spent over seventy months working through in myriad ways. I wasn’t sure if I was delighted or deflated: I was happy to have what I thought was a new and effective way to engage people, and infuriated that I hadn’t come up with it in time to include it in the book.

Come early December, I began working on the text of the speech, and I did pretty much nothing else associated with all my other responsibilities at Deloitte. I enlisted good friends to review daily revisions, and the draft text went from almost four thousand words to less than 1,900 by Boxing Day.

(I gotta give props here to Dwight Allen and Jeff Johnson, both Deloitte colleagues, and, more than anyone, scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson for their help.)

January was devoted to rehearsals. Three and four and five times a day, I would work through the speech top to bottom, with uncounted repetitions of any sections that I stumbled over . . . and every time through I seemed to find new mistakes to make.

You can even throw in a day-long coaching session in New York with communication coach Nick Morgan rates I could mention but won’t for fear of incurring the wrath of the budget police at Deloitte.

So much for the professional investment.

The event, as I mentioned, was in Reno. I live in Mississauga, a city of about 800,000 on the western edge of Toronto. It’s a hassle flying to Reno from Mississauga—the outbound itinerary was via San Francisco, and the return through Denver. To go just for the speech, which was on a Friday, I’d have to leave Thursday morning and not get home until Saturday night.

My wife, Annabel, and I had discussed the possibility of her coming with me, but then we’d have to set up child care, and between Max’s karate—and while we’d be gone, he would have a belt grading for junior orange—and Charlotte’s piano, guitar, and horseback-riding lessons, that would be a real burden on whomever took them on. Plus, my mother, who was our typical go-to for this sort of thing, was away in Vancouver and wouldn’t be able to step in until Sunday. So we’d abandoned that idea.

But I was really invested in this speech, and I wanted Annabel to be there for it. Now, Christmas that year was constrained by a handshake agreement between the two of us that there’d be no big gift for the other. I could, however, still give a big gift to myself, so I set it all up.

I leaned on Annabel’s friends to take Max and Charlotte for three-and-a-half days. I set up my limo service to take Charlotte to her lessons. I bought the plane tickets. And then to make better use of all that fixed cost, I got hotel rooms at the Marriott Grand Residences at Heavenly so we could go skiing for a couple of days. We’d arrive Thursday and leave Monday morning. Perfect.

Now, about this skiing thing. We’d really only taken it up this year, buying our equipment at the “remainders” sale in September. We’d gone skiing just after New Year’s . . . when my skis were stolen. So I had to go back and buy another pair to have them for this trip.

But finally we were on our way, and everything was in order. We got to Reno on Thursday and stayed at Harrah’s that night. The next day was the TEDx event.

After the talk, we took our rented Escalade and all our gear and drove up to South Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side. Thanks to bad directions in the Caddy’s on-board navigation system, we ended up going over Mount Rose instead of staying on the interstate, which meant driving an unfamiliar winding mountain pass in a car about 5 percent wider than the lanes in total darkness.

We got there without incident but with considerable stress, and Saturday morning brought with it terrific skiing conditions. We took the gondola to the top of the Nevada side and met up with our instructors for the lessons we set up for the day.

It was a great first day . . . until about 2 p.m. Just as I was beginning to get the hang of this “carving” thing, I caught an edge, and over I went.

I shouted a manly shout (honest!), but more out of surprise and anger and hope that it wasn’t anything serious. I rolled around on the snow for a bit. The ski patrol happened by. I got up and did a couple of squats and felt kinda OK . . . and then the knee buckled in and I collapsed in a heap. Uh-oh.

At the clinic, an X-ray revealed a segond fracture, and the attending physician—who has seen more than a few of these sorts of things—concluded that I had blown my anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligaments. Not only was the weekend of skiing over, but I was looking down the barrel of six months of recovery . . . if I was lucky.

So, put it all together, and what did my TEDx cost me? About two months of my professional life, on the order of $5,000 for three hours of skiing, a blown knee—with the attendant increased risk of arthritis—at least a month on crutches, surgery, and six months of rehab.

How can I ever determine if all this was “worth it”? What kind of impact on the success of the book would justify the pain, the trauma, the inconvenience?

At the same time, who’s to say what would have happened if I’d stayed home?

In the end, the experience of creating, preparing and delivering the speech, and including my wife in that experience, was utterly wonderful. It was, if you will, an investment that created a return. And in absolute terms, it’s a return of real value to me.

As a ratio, though—that is, in terms of ROI—it probably fails miserably.

Of course, I wasn’t in a position to weigh all these pros and cons in advance, but it’s tough to take that seriously when it comes to the next “investment decision” I make on a wide range of choices.

For example, how should I feel about the risk attendant to skiing? With car insurance, an accident says to the insurance company that you’re a higher-risk driver, so your rates often go up. Should I take from my fall that I’m a bad skier? Alternatively, ski enough, or try something new, and you’ll inevitably have a mishap: Even unlikely things happen eventually. Maybe my fall says nothing about my skiing.

In the month since the TEDx went live, the results have been middling-to-disappointing—just over five thousand views—despite some very nice comments for those whose opinions I value. So in the same way the outcome of the ski trip has me questioning my skiing, the outcome of that TEDx has me questioning the value of such efforts, too.

Perhaps what I’m realizing in a particularly salient way is that when it comes to undertakings of almost any kind, it’s not just the outcomes that are unpredictable. It’s the inputs, too. You might or not might not get what you expect from a given investment . . . but then, what you have to invest to realize any return at all can sometimes really surprise you, too.

The upshot is that deciding what a given outcome says about your abilities is extraordinarily subjective, and the magnitude of individual outcomes can be really difficult to separate from that assessment. After all, if I’d fallen just that much differently, I would have simply gotten up and kept on skiing and not given it a second thought. If the TEDx talk were doing better, or if I had invested less in it, I wouldn’t be obsessing over it. In short (and perhaps I should be embarrassed at the obviousness of it), if the results had been better, I’d feel better about myself.

Yet in both cases, I made what I think were reasonable choices along the way; it’s just that the outcomes have been unfavorable for reasons that are only very ambiguously related to my underlying level or risk as a skier, the merits of my research in The Three Rules, or my ability to communicate the results effectively.

The horticultural fallacy is that “by their fruits shall ye know them.” Outcomes matter because outcomes determine the resources we have at our disposal in order to play the game again. If every investment lost money, if every ski trip ended in debilitating injury, you don’t get to invest or ski again. But in the short run, what we’re trying to do is determine how well a given individual or process can generate desired outcomes, and too often we forget the disclaimers that come with our investment statements: Past results are not indicative of future returns—and that applies to both good and bad results.

A possible implication is that we need to make choices about what to do based pretty much solely on our underlying beliefs about what is likely to cause the outcomes we seek. In simple systems, where connections between cause and effect are relatively straightforward, we can update those beliefs frequently. But in the more complex systems, we need to have patience and faith in our own beliefs. And I’m discovering that’s surprisingly tough.

To help along the way, maybe there’s merit in not thinking about paybacks solely, or even primarily, in terms of ratios. Maybe when it comes to deciding what projects to pursue, or what to invest in them along the way, perhaps it’s simply the return created that counts, and provided on a ratio basis it’s good enough—e.g., it doesn’t bankrupt the company or prove a debilitating injury—maybe the returns are worth considering independently of the investment.

At least, that’s what I’m hoping.

The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.