The Circle of Life at the 2015 Presentation Summit

When you have held annual conferences as long as I have (first one in 1989), you encounter just about everything along the way. We have witnessed all of the following:

  • Marriage proposals
  • Various activities that lead to proposals
  • Similar activities that lead to divorces
  • Power outages plunging all of our ballrooms into darkness
  • A double-booking forcing our Help Center to be relocated to the hotel’s cocktail lounge
  • Three hundred members of the Gay Rodeo Association filling the hotel on our move-in weekend
  • My notebook computer being stolen 10 minutes before having to lead a seminar
  • And of course, our 2001 event in Boston, held over the dates of Sep 9-14.

None of those experiences prepared me for Sep 27-30 in New Orleans, alternatingly sad and lovely, heavy and light, joyous and tearful.

I typically head out to the conference site a week early, three days ahead of the rest of the conference staff and five days in advance of the first arrivals of our patrons. I discovered long ago that the best way to prepare for 200 people paying attention to you 24 x 7 is to spend a few days in complete solitude. In that time, I prepare all of the remarks and seminars that I personally deliver, I correspond daily with the patrons, and I take care of various mindless tasks like printing badges and check-in lists. Again, all good prep for the tidal wave of adrenaline that is about to course through my body for five consecutive days.

Mom's Badge

Not this time. My flight from California touched down Monday evening in New Orleans and my phone launched into a frenzy of simultaneous voice and text messages. My mother had suffered a major stroke. Not just my mother, but the face of the conference: she ran conference registration for over a decade and everyone referred to her as “Mom” or “The Mom.” She wasn’t just my mom; she was everyone’s mom.

I wandered the airport, aimless and unable to think. It was after 9:00p and there were no flights back to California that night, so I found the Hilton across the street from the terminal, slept for two hours, and was on a 4:00a flight back home.

When mantras collide

Beverly Altman passed away while I was on that flight.

She went without pain, and despite approaching her 90th birthday, she suffered no decline at all. In fact, she was winning a bridge tournament when she was felled by her stroke.

Her timing was either horrific or perfect or both, and with two weeks of perspective, I’m still not sure which. When I should have been preparing for a conference in New Orleans, I was preparing for a funeral in California, and that presented the first of several impossible questions that demanded answers:

  • Do I share this news with conference attendees?
  • If so, how and when do I do that?
  • Do I tell my staff so they can pick up the slack during prep week?
  • Do I even attend the conference at all?

I typically send daily emails to all attendees the week prior, to help them prepare for their travel, to give them an idea of our surroundings, and to generally get them enthusiastic about the event. If I were to choose just two guiding principles of the Presentation Summit, I would go with these: 1) We seek the highest form of authenticity in communication; and 2) We create community among presentation professionals.

Those two principles were hopelessly at odds, as I chose to conduct business as usual during prep week: while picking out caskets and preparing for a eulogy, I also continued with daily emails to the patrons. I described the hotel that I had not yet set foot in, gave a virtual walking tour of Bourbon Street, and when one woman asked me about the weather, I called a local contact so that I could provide her with an answer. With my two conference mantras in utter conflict, I chose to commit deception in the name of community. I might never know if I did the right thing; the only thing I knew for sure was that I wasn’t going to tell people that my mom died in an email.

Breaking the news

It was now Saturday and Becky and I were on a 5:00a flight back to New Orleans. The only people that knew the situation were head of Ops Sheila and a few other team members who arrived Thu and Fri. But by the time I arrived at the hotel that afternoon, we were encountering our conference patrons, and soon we would be hosting an evening happy hour for 50 or 60 of them.

What is the right time and the right way to tell 220 conference patrons that you just lost your mother? Under normal circumstances, one of the possible answers would be to say nothing at all, but this situation was far from normal. With as many as 100 of them having enjoyed their own relationship with her, they needed to know. And soon I would be vulnerable to the inevitable, seemingly innocent, and oh-so-torturous “Hey, how’s your mom?” queries.

If I do it right away, I risk casting a pall over the entire four days. If I wait until the end, I deprive people of their own opportunity to process, offer condolence, and even grieve. And once again, 60% of the crowd were first-timers who had never known my mother, much less had any relationship with her. How do I just dump this on them?

So adrift in this, I actually conducted Google searches in the hopes of finding others who had experienced something like this before me, but I seemed to be alone on this island. And while I initially settled on making an announcement the morning of Day Three, I reconsidered the moment I arrived on site. By Sunday morning, about a dozen people had heard the news and to stick them with a gag order until Wednesday would be unfair. More important, the pressure on me was becoming suffocating. How could I function with that bombshell inside of me? How could I promote authenticity in public discourse and conceal such personally-impactful news? Sending out a few emails that everything is hunky-dory is one thing; deceiving an entire conference crowd in person would be the height of hypocrisy.

It soon became completely obvious that the only possible course of action was to tell people right away: at the Sunday evening welcome reception. And while making that decision was like lifting an anvil off of my shoulders, now I had to prepare for the specter of actually doing it, and that presented a whole new set of questions: What do I say? How do I make it relevant to the first-timers who never met her? And how do I bring the mood back up in time to introduce Shawn Villaron from Microsoft, the company that paid good money to act as the sponsor of the reception? (Hi everyone, my mom died. Now please welcome Shawn…)

It was gratifying to discover that I could rely on some of the same principles that I advocate to my clients during presentation skills training:

If you have bad news to deliver, don’t bury it
Ladies and gentlemen, the conference lost a beloved member of its family. My mother Beverly passed away Tuesday morning.

Provide context
From 1989 to 2012, she took up permanent residence at our Registration desk and was the first person to greet you. Her badge simply read “The Mom,” and she was full of smiles for first-time attendees and hugs for our veterans.

Offer meaningful perspective
The Jewish word to describe Mom’s qualities is “ruach” — it means energy, vitality, and zest for life. She was full of ruach, right up to her final moments. (P.S. I do not normally advocate invoking one’s faith in public communication, but it felt appropriate in this case.)

Finish by lightening the mood
If you are going to deliver a eulogy at a presentations conference, you should prepare a chart!

Finally, try to provide meaning for a general audience
I realize that most of you are attending this conference for the first time and did not meet my mom. I consider it a blessing that you will have the opportunity across the next three days to get a sense of what this conference meant to her and what she meant to the conference.

Catharsis in community

My belief in the power of in-person encounters has guided my career arc. While webinars are useful tools and social media outlets help connect people, there is just no substitute for meeting people face to face. I have pretty much staked my livelihood on that premise with a 13-year investment in an annual conference and a commitment to meeting clients in person whenever possible.

As you can imagine, I received lots of condolences across the week, not to mention numerous queries along the lines of “how are you even standing up right now?” Frankly, it was easy. I have written and spoken many times about the almost-magical qualities of the folks who attend the Presentation Summit. How they come together to create a community that is extraordinary for a business conference. How they create collective grace and humility.

The 220 people who attended the Summit this year were a source of tremendous strength and healing. They were Mom’s second family, so how could they not be?

 

Finally, as the conference lost its mom, it might be gaining its first-ever conference baby. Stephen Kuhnert, representing Made in Office, one of our platinum sponsors, was intending to fly home to Germany with his expectant wife. When her water broke eight weeks early, they found themselves with an extended stay in New Orleans. At the time of this writing, the parents to be were resting comfortably and waiting patiently for nature to take its course. We’ll keep everyone posted on this wonderful completion of the circle of life. (In fact, here is the update: the circle of life has been completed!)

 


 

The Mom

27 Comments

  1. Johanna Rehnvall on Oct 6, 2015 at 10:23 am

    We are so grateful that we got to know Beverly and you did a beautiful job of honoring her at the conference. She now has her own chart, The Beverly Chart, that those of us there will always try to live up to.

    Med varmt deltagande,

    /Johanna

  2. nigel holmes on Oct 6, 2015 at 10:25 am

    Beautifully written, Rick. A wonderful tribute to your mom. Thank you for a tearful read. (And i loved the chart!) Nigel

  3. Charles Cranford on Oct 6, 2015 at 10:51 am

    I met “The Mom” at the first conference and looked forward to her (and her sister’s) smile(s) at the registration table and the personal attention to any items of concern we had along the way (best restaurants nearby, locations of meeting rooms, time and place of dinners, etc.). She was such a wonderful part of the conferences…and I will miss her, too…

    Blessings to you and your entire family!!!

    Charles

  4. Steve Turnbull on Oct 6, 2015 at 10:56 am

    This is beautifully written, and I truly laughed out loud when I got to your mom’s chart. What a nice tribute.

  5. Sandy Johnson on Oct 6, 2015 at 11:57 am

    Beautiful, Rick. The mom will, indeed, live on in our memories.

  6. Jenny Dormoy on Oct 6, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    Your tribute and conference backstory was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. In a world that rewards inanity and evil, your light and your mom’s light shine brightly.

  7. Jennifer Parkinson on Oct 6, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    This is such a lovely tribute. I remember when I first met The Mom in San Diego. She made us feel at home and immediately part of the family. We got to know her more in Austin and I always joked with Mike how I wanted her to adopt me. She was a special lady and we are all better for having known her.

  8. Kate Milligan on Oct 6, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    Rick,
    My sincere condolences to your and your family in the loss of “The Mom.” Thank you for the story and for the fantastic chart. I never met your mother, but her photographs clearly show her zest for life. You and the Presentation Summit community are fortunate that Beverly’s was the welcoming face of the conference for many years. May her spirit live on in the community – and may the arrival of a new baby complete this circle of life.

  9. Randy Spydell on Oct 6, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    Rick,
    Your mom, your story and how everything rolled out, especially your wise admonishments at the end of your comments above, well-illustrated by The Beverly Chart, remind me strongly of one of my favorite tidbits of wisdom: “True wealth is the ability to fully experience life.” (Henry David Thoreau).

    The Mom is clearly a strong beacon guiding us all down this path.

  10. Diane Smith on Oct 6, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    I attended and experienced most of the conferences you mentioned, and as 2001 happened, conference attendees pulled together to support each other and I wouldn’t expect any less of the attendees learning this sad news. Beverly was the warm greeting I always looked forward to when I walked into registration. She is the center of your conference family, and I am sorry for your loss.

  11. Fran Kandrac on Oct 6, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Your mom’s timing was perfect. She knew what the conference means to you, and she allowed you to be surrounded by people who motivate you, entertain you, and comfort you when you needed it most.

  12. Rebecca MaClaughlin on Oct 6, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    I don’t think you could have handled such a devastating loss with 220 people any better than you did. Whatever Google could have come up with, you did it your way which was really best. Thinking of you and your family.

  13. Carol Lovelady on Oct 6, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    I’m so glad that I got to work with her so many times at the conferences. She fit in so well with all of us and helped make the conferences even more special.

  14. Woody Parks on Oct 6, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    I’ve not had the pleasure of attending your conference or the privilege of knowing your mother, but I deeply appreciate your frank and heartfelt description of how you shared your burden with others. I think you got it exactly right.

  15. David Needle on Oct 6, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    Thank you for introducing me to the word “ruach.” What a great word and apt description for your mom.

  16. Wayne Kaplan on Oct 6, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    That was one of the finest (and most touching) pieces you have written. Of course, The Mom was quite an inspiration. I always enjoyed kibbitzing with her at conferences.

    I still remember a discussion with her and Marion, about how we in SoCal might say “take the 5” or “the 405,” while you guys just say “take 5.” I had never noticed that regional difference till The Mom mentioned it.

    Even folding T-shirts was entertaining with The Mom around.

  17. kathy strauss on Oct 6, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    I am glad to say that your mom’s hugs & welcome were one of the bright highlights when I was attending the conferences… she will be missed – but definitely live on in everyone’s hearts. And nice to know that GC & I made it to the top bullet point… “marriage proposals”… we celebrated meeting @ CorelWorld in ’97 last month… (& our 16th wedding anniversary). The world goes round – daily life happens… & memories live forever… somehow – your mom & you will always be linked to ours….
    much love & many hugs….
    blessings to you & your family….

  18. Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss) on Oct 6, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    What a beautiful message, Rick. It brought a tear to my eye, and then sure enough the chart brought a smile to my face. Such a fitting tribute – well done indeed.

  19. Franca Voegelin on Oct 6, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    Your mom was very special. She greeted us at every conference I ever attended – I can’t imagine one without her. I’m not at all surprised that you would handle this sad confluence of events with the same thoughtfulness and courage that carried us through all previous crises, large and small, and that your “family” would respond with its wholehearted support.

    Thank you for addressing this wonderful post to *all* conference attendees, past and present, so that we old-timers wouldn’t miss it.

  20. Linda Gross on Oct 6, 2015 at 11:18 pm

    What a beautiful tribute to your mother Rick. I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting her but you surely brought her to life for me with your beautiful and heartwarming stories of her. Having met the son, I can easily imagine the amazing woman she must have been.
    My deepest condolences to you and your family.

  21. Geetesh Bajaj on Oct 6, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Rick — there’s nothing more that I can add here, but you did manage everything so amazingly.

  22. Kirsty Hollis on Oct 7, 2015 at 3:47 am

    I didn’t get to meet your Mom, but I am so glad I got to meet you, your lovely wife and the extended Summit family this year. You were such a gracious and humble host during what was must have been such a tough time. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

  23. Nancy manalili on Oct 7, 2015 at 10:01 am

    Beverly was not only a client, she was a friend, a teacher, and a laughing partner. We both shared jokes and what I really miss is her smile and concern for people around her. Every event she was busy thinking ahead of time to make it perfect and organized.

    I am so proud to have been her caregiver for almost six years. I promised to her that I might not be like her, but I will always take care of Dave for her.

    She deserved to pass with dignity, and I am glad that I did not see her suffer. I am OK now since I know that her spirit is in my heart and I have another angel up there watching over me.

    Nancy Manilili
    Caregiver to Dave and Beverly Altman

  24. John Wilson & Trish Pemberton on Oct 8, 2015 at 5:08 am

    I first met “Mom” in 2008 in San Diego, sadly Trish never met het but now feels she knows her thanks to your words. We feel your (and our) loss Rick and were glad to be able to help pick up slack if only in a small way.

  25. Kathy Howe on Oct 8, 2015 at 5:26 am

    Rick, as you make everyone feel part of a family, your comments help all of us know just how inclusive that circle is. I’m sorry I didn’t know her. Thank you for sharing.

  26. Lee Musick on Oct 8, 2015 at 5:56 am

    One of the highlights of any conference I attended was getting to see The Mom once again. Always with a smile on her face, a warm greeting, and giving me that “Welcome Home” feeling. What a lady! Beautifully written, Rick!

  27. Jennifer Winn on Oct 20, 2015 at 8:19 am

    I was so touched by your account of the events as they unfolded, and could only imagine what a surreal, emotional roller coaster you must have been on for the past month. I have wonderful, warm memories of her even though I only spoke with her a couple of times. Thank you so much for sharing her with all of us.

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