No doubt you have your share of such war stories. Maybe you even learned something from it. Doesn’t make it any more comfortable to think on it, eh?
My tale of woe—and no, this isn’t my Mary Lou Retton story; that one you’ll have to get from me in a different venue—goes back more than two decades, when I was a fledgling speechwriter. I had a new client who was giving a fairly significant
speech. We met, covered the primary points, and a few days later I turned around a draft.
Then my client called and rejected the draft. This caught me by surprise. My speechwriting experiences had been positive, and to this day it remains one of my favorite jobs. At the time, I didn’t expect a complete rejection. It felt as if the whole world had fallen in on me.
But I didn’t have time for despair. I had only an afternoon to revise—actually, totally rewrite—the text before my client left town. (This was back when remote email access wasn’t nearly as easy as it is today.) So I promised I would have a new draft by day’s end.
Cue the guy from Office Space. “Um … yeah.”
Even considering all the drop-dead deadlines I had endured in my earlier journalism career, I never felt so pressured to finish something on time as I did that new draft. With no Internet access—not that it would have mattered back then—I was making panicked forages through files and reference books one minute, hammering away on my 386 PC the next. Every now and then, I’d save the draft to a 5¼-inch floppy disk.
The pressure grew as the clock crept past 4 p.m. My deadline for the next draft was 4:30. And deep inside, I knew this version wasn’t as good as it should be. But I was in the home stretch. With 20 minutes to spare, I saved the draft one last time and prepared to print it.
It vanished from the screen.
That’s weird, I thought as I reopened the file from the floppy disk.
In a mystery that remains unsolved to this day, the new draft was gone. Only the rejected draft remained—a draft that should have been overwritten half a dozen times.
All the work I’d done that afternoon had dissolved into the ether. And it was 20 minutes to deadline.
Trembling, I went to my manager’s office with two thoughts in mind: One, how was I going to explain this? And two, I’d look lousy in a fast-food uniform.
My manager was there. So was her boss. And his
Oh man, this just keeps getting better….
I explained the situation to the assembled management. They favored me with funereal looks. But when the senior-most person offered to inform the client, I said, “No. This was my responsibility. I’ll do it.”
Back in my cubicle, I prayed fervently before picking up the phone. My hand shook so much I could barely bring the receiver to my ear. As the client came on the phone, I figured I had nothing to lose, so I tried to lighten the bad news with a sprinkle of levity.
“Hey, you know the old excuse, ‘The dog ate my homework?’ Um, well, my computer ate your speech.”
The ensuing silence was so ominous, even the crickets feared to chirp.
I won’t drag out the suspense any further: Since the client planned to stop by the office the next morning before leaving town, he gave me the night to try again. I worked until nearly midnight, but a new—and far, far better—draft was on his desk when he came in. He loved it, and he delivered it a few days later with great success. (Well, except for the overhead lights glaring off the TelePrompTer screens, but that’s another story….)
The morale of this tale ought to be, “Being honest and taking responsibility will lead to a happy ending.” Often it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.
But it’s always the right thing to do.