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I Screwed Up A Virtual Conference

I won’t make that mistake again.

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ASTORIA, NYC- I really hope that teleconferences are not something that sticks post-pandemic.

I’ve been getting invitations to speak at remote conferences regularly since the world’s event ecosystem evaporated in March and I’ve regularly been turning these digital events down in rapid succession. This is partly out of bitterness that my real speaking engagements, which would have taken me around the world this spring, had been canceled, partly because the organizers of these digital conferences apparently don’t feel compelled to pay their speakers anything. It takes just as much time to prepare for a digital event as an AFK event … save for the time it takes to pull on a pair of pants, of course.

On the day of the event I logged on to discover that my talk had been touted as being about something fundamentally different that what I had prepared.

I’m not at a point in my career where I’m enthusiastic to do speaking events for exposure alone, although I admit that this exposure is often valuable. For your work to become a job you need to be paid. Speaking engagements are one of my main streams of income — they usually pay well, cover travel expenses, and are fun.

Sitting in my room talking to my computer screen for free? Not so much fun.

However, I received a speaking invitation from a think tank / consultancy group focused on creating private utopias cities around the world. I’m a member of their advisory board and we’ve done things together in the past. I said I’d do it.

While I’ve done virtual talks before I wasn’t familiar with the software that we’d be using. We had a dry run the day before the event. It seemed simple enough (cue ominous foreshadowing music here).

So I reserved an entire workday to prepare my talk, assemble my slides and photos and videos.

On the day of the event I logged on to discover that my talk had been touted as being about something fundamentally different that what I had prepared. Something must have gotten crossed between my communications with the organizers and the team promoting the event. I shrugged and pretended that I didn’t notice the discrepancy. What else could I do?

I then began watching the other speakers do their things. The first speaker and trouble with the technology and ended up having to do the event without video. Nobody could understand what he was saying. I watched as the audience roasted him in the live-streamed comments. Hungry jackals.

The next guy went and seemed to have been reading from a prepared script. He was a government guy, and, as government guys tend to do, he ramrodded an endless stream of facts and figures down the audience’s throats and continuously praised his superiors. The jackals weren’t having it.

I was up next. I felt two contrary stream of emotions. The first was confidence. The bar had been set pretty low. It wouldn’t take much to be the most engaging speaker so far. The second was … man, those jackals.

I didn’t stop a string of profanities from coming out. I had skewered my own talk. I considered just slamming shut my laptop and being done with it.

When speaking at a real event each individual in the audience is compelled to keep their disgruntled or otherwise antagonistic comments to themselves. Few people have the balls to complain about a public speaker when they’re standing right in front of them and many will not express such opinions unless they hear them validated by someone else first. I’ve watched some truly hideously boring talks before and have marveled at how polite the audience has been — they just sit there quietly nodding or staring straight ahead. During digital conferences the gloves come off. The audience can communicate directly with each other the entire time, which seems to have a tendency of descending into criticism or know-it-all-ism or pure mockery.

It was my time to go but the government guy before me refused to stop speaking, as government guys tend to do. The organizers came on and told him to stop. He kept going, praising his superiors and being sure to read every last line of what was prepared for him to say. The organizers came on a second time and told him to stop. He kept going. When he finally relented I had lost a third of my time to speak.

Trimming down a talk on the fly is more difficult than it may seem. It’s not like an ordinary job where less time to work is a good thing. No, you still need to present your examples and wrap it all up before you run out of runway. You need to cut some things out while leaving enough in to make your point. I was thinking about this as I began.

I talked for twenty minutes, showing my slides and explaining my images and video, when I was suddenly interrupted by the organizers.

“Uh, excuse me, I don’t think you’re sharing your screen.”

I thought that I was concealed behind my slides but I was actually fully exposed, sitting there at my desk, blabbing away, picking my nose…

I didn’t stop a string of profanities from coming out. I had skewered my own talk. I considered just slamming shut my laptop and being done with it. There would be no going back. I looked down and realized that it was over. So I just called it and opened things up to questions.

When I was finished I had a good laugh at myself.

There are two types of mistakes: acute mistakes and chronic mistakes.

Acute mistakes are those that you make once and will never make again. These are things like not properly folding a button down shirt before packing it into a suitcase or forgetting to push the record button before shooting a video. As painful as these mistakes may be in the moment you also feel a sense of relief because you know that you won’t fuck up like that again.

Chronic mistakes are the things that you do to your own detriment that you keep doing over and over again. Things like blabbing idiotically when you feel nervous in front of people you look up to, being overly combative in company meetings, drinking too much the night before, or pretty much any other vice. These are the mistakes that, for some reason, you are wired to make, the kind where you keep saying to yourself “I’m not going to do it, I’m not going to do it,” and then you do it again anyway.

I sort of like making acute mistakes. They are one and done and after I make them I can say, “I’m glad I’m never going to do that again.” They are learning experiences.

As for chronic mistakes, well, those are just a small part of who we are — the imperfections that make people interesting.


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Filed under: Epidemics, New York City, Speaking Events, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3719 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

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  • Jack May 9, 2020, 9:26 pm

    At least I think you learned from it.

    This did get me to thinking. I think that travel has one other benefit: It allows our chronic mistakes to seem like acute mistakes to others.

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    • Wade Shepard May 10, 2020, 8:19 am

      Haha! Good point! That’s very true.

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  • MRP May 12, 2020, 8:37 am

    Man, what a nightmare ( bit of a giggle from a readers’ perspective; Wade Live: chiselling-out crusty snot. Luckily, you weren’t caught with your pants down 😄

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    • Wade Shepard May 12, 2020, 9:19 am

      Haha I know, man. It totally could have happened. “Uh, excuse me, but the audience can see your underwear.” haha. Oh well.

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