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 night’s sleep.

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.

“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 here.

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 trouble.”

“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 your message.

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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