Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Communicating Clearly ... The Challenges

 Glasgow: Here I had my first lesson about how Scots and Yanks don't speak the same language. "What?" "Huh?" "Could you say that again?" were my mainstays. This was quite a few years ago so a few things might have changed … I hope.

Let me give you some examples. I needed space for 3,000 people for a plated dinner, not available in Glasgow at that time. So,  I identified an empty lot that could be tented for our event. “Tented?” my Scottish collaborators asked. Turned out in Scotland, a tent is a canopy. What I wanted was a “marquee.” George (my local Glasgow caterer) was my go-to person responsible for connecting me to the landowners. He's an integral part of everything that follows. He did some leg work and was able to contact the land management company. They were going to be building condos soon, but they thought they could lease us the land for a week if we needed it. We just had to fill out a few forms.

Those “few” forms turned out to be about 100 sheets of paper consisting of English legal terms I couldn't figure out ... did you see Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution? I filled them out.

Now we get into the real challenges. Trying to analyze what this would cost. Our dollar is their pound, and the exchange rate fluctuated every day. I tried to persuade all vendors to quote me in dollars, but they wouldn't. I tried to persuade my client to be flexible, but they couldn't. What's that expression ... between a rock and a hard place?

The budget was limited. We had to plan carefully.

So, let's recap. We have a piece of land larger than a football field. I'd tell you the number of feet, but I only know the number of meters. The land was slanted, rocky, ungraded and dilapidated. It was surrounded by barbed wire fence. There was only one point of access ... across a l o o o o o o n g bridge. No problem, unless it rained. And, as I discovered, it rained 360 days a year in Glasgow.

Never mind. More later. Let's talk about the marquee. If we could grade the land and if we could secure the marquee and if we could find flooring and if we could get all the appropriate permits ... how could we create an innovative event when our entire budget was being blown on grading, permits, land use and marquee-ing, not to mention porta-potties, called mo-bile loos? It helped that the marquee was a bright blue, an unexpected look.

We interviewed everyone we could think of from production companies to flooring people to linen purveyors. What we found was that most people could not fathom what we were trying to achieve. When we asked about floor-length tablecloths, they all looked at us askance. I finally worked up the nerve to ask the caterer why no one had floor-length linen. His reply: "Why would you have a table linen that came to the floor? What would people do with their feet?"

Okay, load in and prep: After the marquee was set up (and that’s an endless story of logistics) next came the flooring, meters and meters of flooring. The floor did not fit the tent when it was set in place, so all the tent poles had to be moved to fit the floor, which was filthy. I asked another George, the floor man, if he intended to clean it. Blank stare. I asked again.

"Ye only said you wanted a floor, mon," he replied. "Ye didna say ye wanted it clean."

The walkway marquee arrived. It was flimsy, made of skimpy wood and was yellow and white striped. I asked the tent man if he had an all-white one. "No."

I then asked why he never told me that it was yellow and white striped (just gorgeous with bright blue), and he gave me a blank stare and said, “ye never asked.”

The client did a walk through a few hours before “go.”  He wanted us to cover the barbed wire fence. There were no local materials which would take care of this. However, our logistics coordinator, with all his ingenuity, went across to the exhibit hall and, as they were dismantling the tradeshow, had them bring carpeting across the bridge to cover the fence. Hundreds of meters of fence. To connect it we needed zip strips also known as zip ties, but no one in Scotland had ever heard of them. Once we gave an in-depth description, it was decided that what we were looking for were "cables." We drove to a local hardware store, where they were sold by the piece as opposed to being sold in packages of 100 in the U.S.  

Final walk through. Marquee up. Floor down. Doors … the doors were still not completed and were being painted. None had knobs. We asked why. Blank stares.

"Ye didna ask for doorknobs, mon."

Bungee cords were installed to open the doors. Necessity is the mother of invention.

All the kitchen equipment arrived. Then the centerpieces, which were placed on the sides of the tables. Funny, I could have sworn that the definition of "center" piece meant that it went in the middle of the table. Moving 300 centerpieces an hour before the event is exhausting, especially considering that every table was pinspotted. If we hadn't done so, we would have had a pinspot in the center and the centerpiece on the side! When I asked the florist why she did that, she replied, "That’s where the sugar and creamer go.”

Dinner: Salad arrived with a police escort. Since it had to go slow through rush hour traffic and it was on tray stands, the caterer protected it with a sirened escort. Glasgow has a code on how long food can be pre-set on a table, so it had to arrive at almost the last minute. Which meant that the first music our guests heard was the sound of police sirens … many of them.

Then came the billing and VAT. But that's another story.

The Lesson
First, just because you and your crew in Scotland use English to communicate, don’t assume you speak the same language. Don’t presume that you can understand each other, either by what you are saying or by the accent in which you are hearing it. Everyone in Glasgow sounded like Scotty from Star Trek or Mike Myers caricaturing Scottish! Listening carefully was the key. Providing clear details was also important.

Would you think you’d have to ask for a floor to be clean or for doors to have knobs or for centerpieces to be placed in the middle of a table? Well, details matter, especially if you are collaborating with new people.

Other Examples
This could be a very long blog, but here’s where I learned that “lunch” could mean a lot of different things depending on where you are. In Mexico, it meant all workers went home to be with their families. Whether they were in the middle of a project or not. And it was not a lunch “hour” … it was as long as it took. In Spain, workers expected a full  multi-course plated meal complete with wine. In the U.S. we have a “no alcohol” policy. In Spain, forget it. No wine with lunch. No more workers.

So, Andrea, is there a point to all of this? Yes, always have a local translator on hand even if you speak the same language.  And ask for examples, drawings, samples and full descriptives of everything along with timelines. Because language is not just words, it’s what the words mean and how they relate to local customs. Successful outcomes can only be achieved with clear communications and both parties having the same understandings. Though all of what I’ve described, and I’ve only scratched the surface, sounds like a comedy routine, at the time no one was laughing.

I am now…remembering a lifetime of lessons learned, with more to come.

Andrea Michaels is the president of multiple award-winning Extraordinary Events. EE has won 39h Special Events magazine Gala Awards. Andrea was presented with the Steve Kemble Leadership Award during The Special Event 2015, adding to numerous personal honors, including the Pillar of the Industry Gala and the Event Solution Hall of Fame awards. She is the author of Reflections of a Successful Wallflower – Lessons in Business; Lessons in Life and co-author of a number of other business books. To learn more about EE, visit

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