Coffee, Expectations and The Fire Alarm Point ©
by Melissa Lewis
I’ve discovered that general lessons
from my life often can be applied more specifically to public speaking.
This was the case during a recent stay at a luxury resort where I was
reminded that if you don’t meet people’s basic needs first, your fancy
extra efforts can backfire on you.
The very high-end spa and golf resort was the venue for a conference
where I was scheduled to speak. As always, I arrived the day before to
settle in, check out the room where I would be presenting, confirm
logistics, etc. Dwarfed by the colossal arrangements of exotic flowers
in the lobby, I waited patiently in the registration line. A young
hotel employee approached those of us waiting and offered us warm cloth
hand towels to freshen our hands and faces. I had never experienced
this hospitality ritual but was impressed. (I have frequently
complained about “road grunge”, a grimy film that seems to settle on me
whenever I travel a long distance, especially by air. My husband
insists there is no such such thing but I am convinced that road grunge
is a legitimate phenomenon. I think someone ought to write a
dissertation on road grunge, but I digress.)
A Blissful Wonderland
When I opened the door to my room, I felt like Dorothy arriving in
Munchkinland. Unveiled before my road-weary eyes were luxurious, silky
drapes framing a beautiful view; cushy, brocade-upholstered furniture;
an enormous cloud-like bed; a mini-bar stocked with gourmet treats and
libations; a gorgeous marble bathroom with Jacuzzi tub--a veritable
Shangri-La. I spend a lot of nights on the road and believe me, this
was an especially luxurious sanctuary.
After I had completed my business duties, I found I had some free time.
On a whim, I called down to the spa. They just happened to have an open
massage appointment in 30 minutes. I headed downstairs and enjoyed a
soothing steam in the sauna, then a blissfully relaxing massage.
Afterward, I floated to the spa lounge where, enveloped in a soft,
thick hotel robe, I melted into a lovely rattan chaise, sipped herb tea
and watched the colorfully-clad golfers on the impeccably manicured,
emerald golf course below.
After a quick change back at the room, I proceeded to dinner, which was
also a delight: delicious food, courteous service, lovely music. When I
returned to the room, the bed had been turned down and gourmet
chocolates beckoned from the pillow as the Bose stereo system infused
the room with soft classical music. I savored my chocolates as I read
over my notes one last time. I then enjoyed a luxurious soak in the
Jacuzzi, complete with European bath salts and copious, fragrant
bubbles. Finally, I slid between the Egyptian cotton sheets under the
fluffy down comforter and drifted on my personal cloud into a blissful
A Morning Surprise
As I awoke the next morning, still aglow from the luxury of the night
before, I looked forward to my usual morning ritual: sipping a cup of
coffee in my robe while quietly preparing for the day and reading the
paper. I got up to make my coffee and was perplexed as to where the
coffee maker was. It seems all hotel rooms have coffee makers these
days, but apparently the coffee maker had been mistakenly removed from
this room. I decided to call the desk.
BRRRRING. . .
“Good morning, Mrs. Lewis. How may I serve you?”
“Good morning. I was wondering, shouldn’t there be a coffee maker in the room?”
“No, ma’am. I’m afraid we don’t provide in-room coffee.”
(In shock) “Come again?”
“I’m afraid we don’t provide in-room coffee.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No ma’am. I’m sorry.”
“I see. . . well. . .Thank you.”
I hung up in disbelief. The blissful bubble of the night before had
burst. This luxury hotel, which claimed to cater to every comfort,
every whim imaginable, was withholding one of the most basic morning
rituals held sacred the world over: A cup of coffee before I face the world.
Option 1: I could call room service, but that would require that
I deal with a waiter (which counts as “the world” as far as I’m
concerned) in my personal space while I’m in my pajamas with bed hair
and no makeup. This is not a good start to the day. I noticed a little
card that extolled their gourmet coffee which could be brought to my
room within 10 minutes. They would bring a three-cup pot for $10 or a
six-cup pot for $15. It’s not that I can’t afford to buy an
expensive cup of coffee, but I resent doing so given that I don’t want
six cups. I don’t even want three cups. I want one cup. And I don’t
want to deal with a stranger in my personal space when I look like hell in
order to get it . . . especially before I’ve had my coffee.
Option 2: I could go ahead and read the paper, shower, dress,
etc. without my coffee, but that would be like starting the day
without, say, a pancreas.
Option 3 (Which I reluctantly chose): I huffily pulled on some
clothes, ran a comb through my bed hair and--doing my best to summon
superhero-style invisibility--made the long, humiliating trip to the
lobby where I had to stand in line with a bunch of strangers and pay $5
for a cup of plain coffee at the ersatz Starbucks, then haul my groggy,
ungroomed carcass back to my room.
There’s a Lesson Here
Now, I realize that having my coffee ritual disrupted is a very small
problem. There are people starving, after all, and even in the moment I
was able to detach and watch with amusement as my petty ego grumbled
over the inconvenience. But I sensed that there was a larger lesson
The lesson was this: If you don’t meet people’s basic needs, the
extraordinary extras you provide can actually be annoying. I found
myself thinking, “Keep your warm registration line towels. Give me a cup of coffee before I face the world.”
(By the way, out of curiosity, I looked in the local yellow pages and
discovered that even the Super 8 Motel provides in-room coffee.)
So what does this have to do with public speaking? It’s the same
lesson: if you don’t meet the listeners’ most basic need first, your
fancy extras may actually do more harm than good. And what is the
listeners’ most basic need? Make your POINT. Many
speakers obsess over fancy accoutrements like elaborate, animated
PowerPoint shows, full color glossy handouts, razzle-dazzle openings
and theatrical movements and gestures. The problem is, if you haven’t
conveyed a clear and compelling key message, your extravagant extras
won’t impress anyone. In fact, they may be a liability as your
listeners wonder, “Why did you spend so much time on all this fancy
stuff when you haven’t even made a coherent point?”
The Fire Alarm Point
Here’s a tip I recommend to help make your point clearly and succinctly up front. I call it The Fire Alarm Point.
Imagine that 15-30 seconds into your remarks, a fire alarm goes off and
everyone in attendance jumps up and runs out of the room. You want them
to run out knowing your POINT. Let’s say you spend the first few
minutes with tedious chatter like “Gee, it’s great to be here.
Thank you so much for inviting me. I appreciate the opportunity to
speak to you. What a great city you have,” blah, blah, blah. The
fire alarm goes off and your listeners run out having learned nothing.
But if you make your point clearly and concisely right up front--in
one, or at most, two sentences--they might actually seek you out among
the fire trucks outside and ask you to continue. To find your Fire
Alarm Point, ask yourself, “If I had only one sentence to get my point
across, what would that one sentence be?”
Here are some examples:
“I want to assure you today that, although we’ve had some setbacks,
the project is back on schedule and contingency plans are in place to
make sure the work is completed on time and under budget.”
“If you only take away one thing from this presentation, I hope you’ll
walk away knowing that you have far more power and can make a far
bigger difference in the world than you have ever imagined.”
“If I had to describe Mary’s leadership style in one sentence I would
say, ‘She inspires people to follow her to the ends of the earth, and,
once there, she somehow gets them to set up camp, start a fire and
rustle up dinner, too.’”
“The most important point I want to make today is that there are
significant danger signs flashing for this industry, and if we don’t
perk up and make some changes soon, this organization could be in big
“If you don’t meet people’s basic needs first, your fancy extra efforts can backfire on you.”
Starting with a Fire Alarm Point rather than the usual, trite platitudes has several advantages:
1) You know you have conveyed your key message.
Even without a fire, your time can be cut short unexpectedly. Starting
with a fire alarm point ensures that even with a brief window of
opportunity, you can get your key message across, if nothing else.
2) It gives your presentation momentum. When you start off with a clearly worded, carefully crafted point, it gets things off to a running start.
3) It focuses the listeners’ attention. When
they know where you’re headed, they can focus on your information
instead of being distracted by wondering “Where is he going with this?”
4) It shows respect for the listeners and their time.
Listeners these days, especially executives, have many demands on their
time. When you show respect for their time by making your point quickly
up front, listeners appreciate the courtesy and are more receptive to
5) It prepares you for spontaneous opportunities.
You get on an elevator when someone you've been desperate to meet with
just happens to step on with you. If you have a fire alarm point ready,
it can be a powerful elevator ride that gets results instead of the
usual “Nice weather we’re having” snooze-fest.
Fancy extras have their place. If a multimedia, laser-light, PowerPoint
extravaganza makes your point more vivid, fine; knock yourself out.
Just make sure you meet the basic need--making a clear POINT--first, then dazzle them with the extras.
After all, everyone’s happier and more receptive once they’ve had their coffee.
Note: As a synchronistic footnote to the coffee story, the following
week I drove into downtown Washington very early to beat the traffic
for another conference presentation. There was a nice hotel restaurant
near the conference venue. Since I had some time to kill, I decided to
get a table and have a muffin and some juice. (I had had my one cup of
coffee earlier.) I looked up from buttering my muffin and noticed an
uncomfortable-looking middle-aged woman standing by the hostess stand.
She was clearly not waiting for a table because another party arrived
and was seated while she stood there. She was dressed more casually
than I would expect, given the setting. She also had dark circles under
her eyes and her hair looked rather flat and disheveled. I remember
thinking, “Honey, you might want to work on that hair a little more.”
Then the story became clear. A waiter emerged from the kitchen with a
single cup of coffee which he handed to the woman. She muttered a tense
“Thank you” and hurried onto the elevator to go back to her room.
Copyright © 2017, Melissa Lewis
Melissa Lewis turns traditional thinking about public speaking upside down to give people more comfort,
confidence, and charisma in front of groups. She travels nationally as
a highly-rated conference speaker, trainer and coach. She is a former
comic actress, a Past President of a chapter of the National Speakers Association
and has trained as facilitator of SPEAKING CIRCLES ©, a
revolutionary new approach for building speaking skill and confidence.
For more information, call (828) 658-4211 or visit
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