Sunday, January 10, 2016

Getting Fired by Frank Beyer

Ed is sent by his boss to represent the company at a cutthroat presentation competition; by Frank Beyer.

Alert! The boss on the phone. Her friendly tone put me on guard: Hi Ed, glad to catch you... congratulations are in order, you'll be representing the branch this year, I reckon you're in with a fair shot at it...

Well an honour, but like all things a double-edged teapot.

It's being going good with yourself lately - outperforming people with a lot more experience. Keep it up.

This wasn't completely unexpected, I'd won some good contracts in a year since starting at the company. God, he looks like he could do with a good wash, I'd heard my boss say about me when I was first put on her team, but my results had gone some way to changing that first impression.

My tactics were simple: I set myself to send twenty marketing emails a day and make five phone calls. That wasn't many, but consistency was the key. Some of the other cubicled rabbits were always on the phone - obviously to the wrong bloody people. Not that I didn't know what that was like: after most of my calls ended I screamed silently at the unjustness of the universe.

I found visualisation to be helpful - imagining getting the responses I wanted on the other end. Not sure that was strictly visualisation, but I did it. The thing was to get the person you were calling to agree to you coming to their office and doing a sales presentation. I was a solid but not spectacular presenter; improving all the time. After some grooming trial and error I had the right look; the right turn of phrase came if I could stay relaxed. You needed a bit of luck in sales and marketing. They even admitted this in our training. Luck? (What a thing to bring up when training staff!) I preferred the word chance.

Sales and marketing drones in our department were allotted companies from lists the boss made from various chamber of commerce directories. She assured us the way she did it ensured complete randomness. Hopefully you wouldn't get too many duds.

So this gig my boss had put me up for? I would be representing the branch. I was to fly to Auckland to compete with the best from around the country at giving Powerpoint presentations. Normally with PP presentations you prepared to the nth degree; in this competition you delivered a slide-show presentation completely off the cuff. You clicked the remote and slides you'd never set eyes on before popped up. You then did your best to ramble on about them, that is to say - present them to the best of your ability.

It was supposed to be fun and for the first few years by all accounts had been. However, more recently, a competitive velociraptor spirit had been let out. In a few years HR would pick up on this toxic culture and conduct seminars telling us we must have fun with our presenting - but until then it was war. The important thing was not employee-bonding, but helping your bosses to look good. God knows what phone calls went on between branch bosses and team leaders. They weren't doing anything constructive by talking up their candidates - but the big boss would be impressed they cared so much about company stuff. I would have loved them one hundred times more if they'd been giving each other horse racing tips.

For me a good showing would improve my chances of a transfer and/or promotion. First prize was a trip for two to Fiji. I didn't have my eyes on that - just placing well. I was all for renunciation of fruitive action, but I also believed in the old horses for courses: transfer, promotion would equal a calmer more benevolent me. For the lead up period I stayed out of the pub, went to the gym - lived completely for that point in the future when I'd get up, look and talk my best. I felt great, the present moment served only for preparation and held no intrinsic value in itself. It was turning out to be a big year, but everything depended on what happened in Auckland, you're only as good as your performance on the big stage, mate. As a professional, I knew that. My mind was focused. I chanted key points for a killer presentation like a medieval monk. I was going to be immaculately fucking presented. Mr. Style. Office fashion was not yet about the width of your tie in those days, but shirts with French plackets and club collars.

Head office was in a new building on Albert Street. I left the hotel early factoring in the remote possibility of getting lost. The lobby of the new HQ was enormous, featuring sculptures of what I took to be twisted red blood cells. A 'water wall' and a cafe completed the picture - sickening how much money must have spent. On the thirtieth floor the glass doors opened automatically, the booth was unpersoned. Relief. I'd feared having to deal with a well-dressed receptionist. Walking past empty cubicles, shafts of light streaming in the large windows blinded me. I expected somebody to notice my arrival, to say there he is, the young gun or here's one of them, but nothing.

Shading my eyes, I spotted a head way down the end of the room. As I approached and got an angle to reveal more than just the head, I saw it was an elderly but muscular man in a brown woollen jumper and grey pants. His head was square, covered with close-cropped salt and pepper hair. He would have once been quite intimidating. Hold the phone, this was bloody-old-what's-his-name? Could easily be one of the judges... man, I should chat him up a bit, but what to say? I fluffed it, and asked where the coffee machine was.

Over there, he said pointing one great paw...

I pressed the button for flat white, after one sip I decided it was disgusting, but still took a second cup to the conference room. The projector was already turned on, the huge space as yet empty.

All nervous energy. Pacing, much like two polar bears I remembered from fifteen years back. They had their routine down to the same swing of the head every time they turned. The saddest inmates at a zoo situated on a hill. The animals near the bottom held little appeal for a child, but things got progressively more interesting as you went up: llamas, to baboons, to chimps, to wolves, to bears, to big cats. The lion enclosure at the peak... The yellow coats, the mania of the polar bears, a glimpse of how the world really was for seven year old eyes. People started arriving, I took a seat. I was second on the list to present. Snap out of it; don't daydream about zoos. Concentrate. You can do this.

First to speak was the guy in the woollen jumper, introduced as Mr. Colin. He was head office's candidate: not a judge then! This comp wasn't just open to rookies like me, here was a seasoned veteran to make us quake. One could only hope the technology would trip him up, but he looked confident when he got the Powerpoint remote in hand. No more jumper now, a pastel lilac shirt, damn it was well ironed. I looked down at my navy blue number (a darker colour made sweat patches show up less) and tried to smooth the front out a bit.

Mr. Colin clicked to his first slide. We held our breaths. The product appeared: an abdominal machine. Basically an updated version of the kind made popular by Nineties infomercials. Bullet points revealed key information. The product had been created by a major sports personality from the US... had become a number one seller... would NEVER become obsolete. It looked something like a misshapen figure eight and targeted your obliques - the rage muscle groups of the day... Personally I thought Mr. Colin went away from the information on the slides too much, but who cares, he was inspiring. His gravel voice jumped into our hearts and minds:

All these advertised fitness programs today are mere substitutes which never place a person within the reach of real fitness. All theories which postulate you can make it without a specific piece of equipment with the ability to target multiple groups of abdominals are incompatible with what I in good conscience can recommend...

He went on but my concentration wavered. There was raucous applause when Mr. Colin finished. It continued even after he had sat down. Noticing he didn't lean against the back of chair but sat bolt upright, I became aware I was slouching with legs crossed in feminine fashion. I corrected this in the nick of time as the MC was announcing me and eyes shot my way. I got up, heart stopping like when landing in a pool of freezing water, and turned to face the audience. The product I drew was deer velvet. Medicinally it could do anything from helping to see in the dark, to shrinking feet. Slides came and went - miraculous claims of curative properties - nifty diagrams of molecular structure - people changing from decrepitness to sprightly middle-aged mobility; unbelievable stuff.

I kicked off well: making eye contact, moving my hands but not going overboard. But I went too fast. I was struggling to make it to twenty minutes. I decided to waffle on about the next slide; it wasn't a good choice. Up popped a picture of a red stag. A Magnificent animal with many-pointed antlers and sinister clay-coloured eyes. There was no caption or text on this slide.

What do we think about looking at this stag? Hunting, naturally, and antlers on the walls of gothic mansions, but also we think of Bambi and vulnerability... we feel for the deer more than for sheep and cows... it's a graceful sympathetic beast. (Grace of the deer - that was good in linking the velvet with joint mobility, genius!) Doesn't it give you a bit of a healing vibe?

I studied the audience's reaction... They didn't like it. Eyes pus-yellow venom, angry sallow cheeks, fangs crooked over purple lips. They knew how to look brassed off! Shouldn't they have been pleased - easier for them if I did badly? They hated a loser though. I'd stuffed up. And that was it. No recovery from there. I never saw anyone from that audience again. I can't remember any of their faces, except for Mr. Colin. They would remember me: the guy who mucked up that year.

I didn't go to the afternoon tea after the presentations, even though it counted as work time. Standing by the catering table, eating multiple club sandwiches because nobody would talk to me. This didn't appeal. Instead I went round the corner and had two steak and cheese pies. I sat on a bench near the ferry building and tried to enjoy the sun. But, the people on nearby benches chatting, the tourists and commuters getting on and off ferries annoyed me. Even the pigeons at my feet hoping for food got me down. Back at the hotel I got under the covers and turned on Animal Planet - my go to channel when I couldn't open a book or watch a movie because they too were about people.

I flew back to Wellington on an incredibly clear afternoon; the ocean was both green and blue, but the view was lost on me. The next Monday back at work there was grim news, I'd placed dead last in the presentation thing. My boss called me over after lunch, why she couldn't have got it over with in the morning I don't know. We have to let you go, she said using a much different tone from the phone call that had started it all. This was really important Edward and you seem to have treated it like a joke... Not a great time to ask for a reference then.

8 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this. Public speaking is one of the most common fears so it's a great idea for a story. I like the cynicism towards this profit-making side of the world.
    I wonder if it would've been better with a different title as it gives away what's going to happen at the end?
    S.Lucas

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  2. i think this is a very clever story on a very interesting subject. very well written with, for me, a sympathetic narrator, and told in a slightly weary but humorous voice.
    Mike McC

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  3. The story weaves together so many dangers: a difficult profession (sales); impromptu public speaking; fierce competition; corporate greed. The zoo hierarchy is a clever image to bring in. Our man ends up at the bottom of the food chain. What I liked most, however, is how pessimism is tempered by hope. Our man hopes his consistent approach just might deliver up a bit of luck. The character is likable. The story buildup is well done. Bravo!

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  4. A wry take on the cut throat world of modern commerce, with very amusing assides. An entertaining read. thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  5. A very entertaining short story. I really liked the descriptions and the pathos of the narrator. Even though the title gave away the ending I kept reading. DC Diamondopolous

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  6. Thank you all for your comments, much appreciated. FB

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  7. "I was a solid but not spectacular presenter; improving all the time." I found this line of Frank Beyer's piece to sum up the unenthusiastic optimism one must maintain in the corporate world, or risk going mad. Well-constructed, I enjoyed this story.

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