I recently received a call from a fellow professional speaker whose mother is battling cancer. While her mom's prognosis is up in the air, the future is unknown. She reached out to me to ask questions about how I handled the recent death of my father in regards to my business. Unlike people who work in "normal" jobs, a speaker cannot simply take a "Personal Day" at the last minute should something come up.
Speakers have a unique role in the meetings they serve. To not show up at the last minute could impact the conference experience for hundreds or thousands of people (not to mention the stress it would cause the meeting organizer). But life happens to everyone, including speakers. Being prepared for the unknown is paramount to successfully serving your clients.
My father was 99-years-old when he died. While he had lived a very happy, healthy and independent life for most of years, there was still the reality throughout most of my speaking career that something could happen without warning because of old age. After he turned 98, and it was clear that he as in the later stages of life, I had to face up to what was going to happen one day.
I was prepared for many possible scenarios. In the end he died in December, which is a slow time of year for my business. I did not miss any events or have to take the stage for more than a week after he passed away. But had this happened in October (when I have an intense travel schedule), there were plans in place that ensured the best possible outcome for me, my extended family, and my clients.
A Speaker's Back-Up Plan for Emergencies
A professional speaker is still a human-being. When agreeing to deliver a keynote or breakout session at a conference it is rare that anyone (the speaker or the planner) thinks about the speaker having a family emergency, health concern, or an act-of-God that keeps then from showing up at the event. Yet in the real world things do happen. Meanwhile, the audience is still expecting someone deliver an amazing talk, no matter what "stuff" is happening in the life of the person scheduled to speak.
While meeting organizers should always have a "Plan B" in the rare occurrence when a speaker does not show up (see my post: "Four Things To Do If Your Speaker Cancels"), the speaker should also be prepared for an unforeseen snafu. Thinking ahead and being honest about your situation can make any problem easier to handle.
My own speaking career grew as my father aged into his late 90s. While he was in great shape physically and mentally, the reality was that there is no cure for old age. I had to be realistic about my plan for how a major health concern or his passing could impact my clients. This was not a "what if" situation, but a "when" situation.... and something that all of us could encounter at anytime (regardless of the age of our loved ones).
Below are 5 tips for planning for a family emergency that can give speakers peace of mind if they are dealing with an terminal illness of someone they love. Additionally many of these tips also translate to being able to handle other situations that might arise in this crazy business that involves constant travel, etc....
1. Have honest conversations with your family. Being a professional speaker is different that working a traditional job. Most speakers do not have co-workers who can cover a shift or clients that can be flexible with meeting dates and times. I had the hard conversations with my brothers, who lived near my dad and were his primary care-givers, about how my career works and what is expected of me by my clients. They came to understand that I could not drop everything with little notice to rush to California (I live in Texas, but work all over the country and beyond).
Before major conferences I would touch base with my brothers and let them know where I would be on any given week, and what times of day I was speaking. The thought of getting a phone call minutes before going on stage was not pleasant, thus they had to understand that any bad news could wait. By making sure they were aware of my travel schedule and speaking times we could work together to make ensure that I was not blindsided moments before delivering a presentation.
2. Visualize the worst case and other situations. Having to speak after receiving the news that a parent passed away could paralyze even an experienced professional speaker. But the show must go on. Think about your presentation and be aware if you have any parts that may be emotional triggers. I begin one of my keynotes with a story about my dad that includes a photograph of he and I together. Once he passed I knew it would be important to remove this slide from my next speech and kick off with a different story.
I also decided that if I had a talk that was scheduled within days of his passing that I would need to be honest with the audience. I pictured several situations and reviewed my options on how to best handle this with my own style and comfort level for sharing the personal side of my life. Since I am a storyteller, and one who shares a lot with audiences, I had created a story that supported my content that could be worked into a presentation under certain circumstances.
Thinking about all of my options in advance would allow me to make the right decisions in the moment. Be at peace (as best you can) with your own situation and it will not overwhelm you (as much) when the reality hits home.
3. Have a list of back up speakers. One of the biggest benefits of being an active member of the National Speakers Association is having a large circle of friends who are also experienced speakers. Take the time to review which speakers you know who have similar topics and styles to your own. Also know the geographies where you will be speaking and what speakers live in those regions. While having to bow out of an event is not ideal, if you have several choices of high quality speakers who could step in will give peace of mind to your meeting organizer and still serve your audience.
Talk to the other speakers who are on your "back up list" in advance. Be sure they understand your life situation, and be sure that they would be willing to help if needed. Clearly their availability would be the first thing, but also you need to understand their fee structure and travel situation (and it they will cover your gig for what you were being paid). This is why long-term friendships are important, as I had several speaker friends who would have gladly helped me out regardless of the fee I was being paid. Not all speakers will be so generous, so establishing relationships early will make a difference.
This list of speakers you know and trust is not just for facing a family crisis, but could be important with any number of issues that could pop up (think massive storms that close airports!). I have a friends who was stuck in Nashville when tornadoes came through the area. He had no way to get to his next presentation in Omaha. He made one call to the National Speakers Association and got a list of speakers in Nebraska, and upon realizing someone he knew lived close to the event, he only had to make one call the solve the problem.
4. Turn off your phone and don't check Social Media. If you know that a loved one could pass away at any time, turn off your phone for a few hours before your speech. Do not check Facebook or email either, as even if your family has decided to hold back the information until you are done speaking, someone else in your extended circle of friends could discover the news and send you a message of condolences.
If you and your family have talked about not contacting you right away, make sure they tell others that you have not yet been reached. It only takes a few words up front to head off most accidental routing of information. They should add "do not post anything or send email messages until we reach everyone in the family", to their delivery of the information about the death.
5. Go visit your loved ones every chance you get. The speaking business means that you will travel often. Take the time to route though the hometowns of those you care about and visit relatives when you can. Adding a day to a trip here and there will provide peace of mind when the end is near. You may not be able to rush to be with family at the time of death, but if you have been present often you will be able to deal with missing the final days. Every time I had a trip to the West Coast of the United States I would route through the Bay Area to visit my dad. I averaged three or four visits each year for the final four years of his life. Some of these were a few days, others just a few hours, but when he died I felt I had done the best I could (since I live in Texas), and I have no regrets.
It is not easy for anyone to lose a loved one, but speakers face some unique challenges around their speaking and travel schedules. Be proactive and honest with yourself (and your family) and you will find it easier to make the tough decisions.
Have A Great Day