It is a truth universally acknowledged that an entrepreneur in possession of a good idea must be in want of a publicist.
That notion is what led me to meet an acquaintance at the JP Morgan conference in San Francisco. The acquaintance was writing a book for entrepreneurs and asked me to contribute the chapter on public relations. I, of course, agreed to write the chapter, as I have much to say on this topic. Said acquaintance was hosting a reception at the conference and invited me to attend, network a bit and then we could talk about the book.
Winter is usually my hibernation period. Less travel, less meetings, so I’m home in my pajamas most of the time. The opportunity to get out of the house and actually put on decent clothes was a welcome change to my pathetic routine. Being holed up for the winter in your pjs does not allow for a lot of social interaction, and is certainly not good for business or acquiring new clients. I was anxious to emerge from my self-induced cocoon and spread my social butterfly wings once again and welcome an early Spring to my life.
Revitalized, I walked into the reception, which was being held at the Pillsbury office downtown. Without a hiccup, I slapped on my name tag and greeted the receptionist with my best PR smile.
“Fascinating! I’ve lived here for 20 years and I did not know Pillsbury had offices here,” I said.
She cocked her head at me, confused, and then she corrected me. “This Pillsbury is the Pillsbury law firm, not the Pillsbury dough boy.”
Ok, good to know. But I would not be tripped up by a snooty receptionist, so I laughed it off and set out to meet everyone in the room.
“Hi, I’m Jane. What’s your name? What do you do?”
A man from Denmark tentatively shook my hand, but was rather quiet, so I moved on to the next group. They were mostly from the Netherlands. Another conference attendee was already talking.
“Are you guys from Amsterdam?” he said.
“No. We are from Utrecht,” one of the Dutch delegates said. “We have 15 million people in the Netherlands and just over a million are in Amsterdam, so you can see it is a much larger country than just Amsterdam.”
Hmmm….a rather long answer to the simple question about location. But the Dutch can be very precise, so we’ll let it slide.
The other attendee continued, undeterred by their rather inappropriate answer. “I love Amsterdam. I have some great Amsterdam stories.”
I took that as my cue to jump in. “Don’t we all!” I said. “I’ve got an executive in a stripper wig story. What’s your Amsterdam tale?” Such a great story lead-in! The right combination of character and intrigue. I’m a social genius.
The delegate flashed me a look that seemed more annoyed than grateful for my witty charms. He continued, “As I was saying, I was in Amsterdam for a patent hearing and working with the scientists from the University of Amsterdam…”
As he droned on about patents and science (what a bore!), I took a moment to read everyone’s nametags, as any good PR person would do. Jan, from a biotech company. Peter from GlaxoSmithKline. Bart from a pharmaceutical research company. Oh my God. I looked up at the sign on the wall. “Welcome to the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference.” It’s not a JP Morgan financial conference. Oh no. It can’t be! These are scientists!!! Real, live, actual scientists. NOOOOO!!!!!!!
You see, I know the scientist. I was married to one for many years. Bless their hearts, they are brilliant and they save lives with their amazing discoveries. But they do not have nor do they value social skills. In fact, my ex-husband loathed words. Yes, he married a writer and a publicist who speaks ALL. THE. TIME. (And yes, we’re divorced because being married to Bridget Jones was only amusing for probably the first year). My ex had this belief that one should be able to communicate an idea in as few words as possible. More than two sentences was a serious waste of energy and time and reflected a lack of organization and alignment in one’s thoughts.
Just as I was about to back away and quietly slip out, the acquaintance I was scheduled to meet saw me from across the room, waved and came over to say hello. “So glad you could make it, Jane. I’m just going to round everyone up for the presentations, and you and I can meet afterward.”
Presentations? What presentations?
He announced to the crowd that it was time to hear some of the latest innovation and discoveries in drug research. Everyone immediately took their seats. See, scientists don’t linger to mingle or network. They hate that nonsense. They just want to sit down and hear about nano robots and polypeptides.
When I was accepted to Vanderbilt University after attending high school in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, I really believed I was hella smart (of course smart people don’t actually ever use the word ‘hella’). But in my mind, I was a Mensa-certifiable genius. So, I decided I should share my undeniable gifts with the world and become a doctor. I declared my major to be pre-med and signed up for advanced chemistry. I walked into my first advanced chemistry class, ready to further educate my already brilliant mind.
“Today’s class will just be a quick review,” the professor said.
I smiled at my classmates. They might come close to matching my intellect, but I doubted it. The professor began to write the first formula on the board. I figured it would make sense once he finished. And then he finished….and it still did not make sense. Each formula got progressively more complex and unfathomable. My face began to feel warm and flush, and I fidgeted in my chair. Finally, I feigned a stomach flu by vomiting on the floor next to me (which was actually a stress response to the fact that I was in WAY over my head), left the class and immediately went to the registrar’s office and dropped chemistry entirely. In the end, I squeaked by my science requirements at Vanderbilt with their version of ‘science for dummies,’ which was still really hard, just for the record.
As the first presentation slide went up at the Pillsbury (not the dough boy) offices, I felt much like I did in that advanced chemistry class. It said something like, “Beta-arrestin-biased ligands at seven-transmembrane receptors.”
WHAT…THE….???? I understood the word ‘at’ in that headline. That’s all. It did not get better from there. Besides a few standard conjunctions (and, but, or) and articles (the, a, an), I was completely lost. And it wasn’t just one presentation. I realized there was a line-up of presentations and this ‘reception’ was scheduled for TWO FULL HOURS!
The only highlight of this otherwise brain-bursting marathon meeting was when one of the scientists was called up to give his talk. As the scientist got up from his seat, a man just a few seats down called out, “Give ‘em hell, Bart.” People, let me introduce you to the only other non-scientist in the room. Clearly, this guy was in pharmaceutical sales because scientists don’t yell out, ‘give ‘em hell’ before a slide deck presentation. Maybe for a patent submission or when going in to meet with FDA regulators, but not in this context, I assure you.
Bart got up and introduced himself like this: “My name is Bart, like Bart Simpson.”
The crowd erupted in glorious belts of laughter. Seriously? My Amsterdam stripper wig comment gets annoying glances, but this is a knee-slapper?
Trapped and miserable, I sent a text message to the only other person who would really grasp my predicament….my ex-husband, who was at work at the big biotech research company Genentech.
“At JP Morgan Healtchare conf. The word ‘cytokin’ is on the screen. Someone said Genentech. Cannot tell you what he actually said after. No other words decipherable.”
His response: “Is Hal speaking?”
“Hal Barron, chief medical officer for Genentech.”
This was a mistake. My ex is like all the other scientists. He probably gets the humor of the situation, but will chuckle to himself and leave it at that because the humor is self-evident and needs no commentary. He has already moved on to practical facts, like who’s speaking.
Me: “No, I don’t think that’s who is speaking.”
Ex: “What are you doing there?”
Me: “I DON’T KNOW! It’s some horrible mistake!”
He didn’t respond. His words were now fully spent on the matter.
I’ve heard that change happens when the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of doing something different. I was at that point. The pain of hearing one more scientific word far outweighed the pain of skipping out early and ditching the book-writing acquaintance. If he was still interested in having me write for his book, further discussions would just have to be done over the phone.
I considered faking a seizure to see what scientists would actually do in a real emergency. If I could manage to foam at the mouth, which I was pretty sure I could at this point, that would certainly get me out of this entirely-too-long scientific presentation madness. But people who know what Beta-arrestin-biased ligands at seven-transmembrane receptors are could probably spot a fake seizure pretty quickly.
Perhaps the easier option was the more obvious one. In between speakers, I pushed my way through a row of annoyed scientists, apologized for stepping on their toes, and made my escape.
My head hurt. The Bart Simpson joke and the ‘give ‘em hell’ lines were the only comments I could process. Everything else was a sea of 16-20 letter words. Words that I cannot imagine how someone even derived much less spoke quickly, one after another, in full sentences.
I heard the conference door open and a man with fuzzy grey hair and a German accent came out of the room. He could be Albert Einstein resurrected by using Beta-arrestin-biased ligands at seven-transmembrane receptors for all I know.
Al: “Intense session, right?
I wanted to warn him that I’m just the girl who fannies about with the press releases so he needn’t waste his precious word count on the likes of Bridget Jones. But then, a bright light shone at the end of this advanced bio-chemistry tunnel!
Al: “Some of us are grabbing a drink after. Want to come?”
Could he be normal? I actually understood that entire question! I not only understood, he spoke to my very soul! Hallelujah!
Me: “Oh, God yes! I could use a drink. That was so painful I wanted to bang my head against a wall!”
Al: “I know. I thought the Cytokin inhibitor preso was bearable compared to that c-met, homotrimers and fynomors nonsense. What did you think?”
Bridget Jones: ”Um…do you know where the loo is?”
I quickly ran to the toilets around the corner and hid there for about five minutes before sneaking out to the elevators, out the door and to the nearest MUNI train station and finally home, blissfully content to return to my pj’s and hibernation. Though I don’t know why I felt the need to sneak away. I’m quite sure none of the brilliant scientists in the room were wondering, “Now where did that Bridget Jones girl go? She was so witty and her conversational abilities added so much value! Pity.”