Spark's Presentation & Public Speaking Blog

Public speaking tips: Lessons from an inspiring speech on a charity bike ride

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November 19, 2012

by Andy Saks

What makes a speech truly unforgettable?

While you ponder that, let me tell you about one of the most unforgettable speeches I’ve ever seen, one I had to go all the way to Alaska to witness.

In August of 2000, I joined about 1,500 other intrepid (and crazy) folks for a charity bicycle ride across Alaska called the Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride that (sure enough) raised money for AIDS vaccine research.

We started out in Fairbanks, and over six days, we rode 510 miles, or about 85 miles a day, down the scenic (windy, hilly, narrow, treacherous) Richardson Highway into Anchorage.

Andy Saks Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride

Andy Saks smiles and shivers somewhere in rural Alaska on the 2000 Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride.

I thought I was pretty well prepared for this ride. I had trained extensively in long-distance rides near Los Angeles, from the (windy, hilly, narrow, treacherous) Santa Monica canyons north of LA, to the sleepy beach communities to the south. The previous year, I had ridden every inch of a seven-day, 560-mile AIDSRide from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Even through the Day 1 of the Alaska Ride, in which I pedaled the entire 97.4-mile route on a steady incline (how can this all be uphill if we’re going south?), I held my own, and rode into our makeshift camp that evening flush with victory and confident about riding through the days ahead.

But neither I, nor any of us, were prepared for Day 2.

Alaska in August is usually reasonably temperate, which is what we expected and packed for. But three factors tripped us up. First, we started the Ride hundreds of miles north of Anchorage, which is the city most people are referring to when they describe Alaska in August as “reasonably temperate.” Second, because we spent the entire first day riding uphill through higher and higher elevations, we ended it in the wilderness, where the air is considerably colder and thinner. Third, this particular August happened to be one of the Alaska’s coldest in decades.

And so it was that the evening of Day 1, camping in tents in a baseball field about 100 miles south of Fairbanks, with temperatures hanging in the low 40s, a hard, steady, unforgiving Alaska rain began to fall. After dinner, we shimmied into our tents, burrowed into our sleeping bags, and listened to the rain pound our nylon roofs all night long.

The next day, as we ate our wet breakfast, put on our wet riding gear, packed up our wet tents, saddled our wet bikes, and rode out of the camp and up and up and up into even higher elevations, the cold rain turned to wet snow. Fifteen hundred riders, clad only in their spandex biking shorts, colorful wick-away cycling jerseys and nylon jackets, pedaled their slick tires through the snowflakes, down the Richardson Highway, and into the wide-open Alaskan wilderness.

By the end of the day, about twelve hundred of those fifteen hundred riders (including me) had given up riding somewhere along the route.

Many riders made it to one of the Ride’s roadside refueling stations, called Outposts, and huddled outside, shivering and waited for help. Some riders had simply stopped in place when their numb hands could no longer steer or brake or their tires couldn’t negotiate the thickening snow, and waited by the side of the road for a passing car.

The Ride’s staff, sensing disaster and reacting quickly, managed somehow to rent a fleet of school buses from Fairbanks to pick us up. But as we had ridden more than one hundred miles from Fairbanks, and were scattered along sixty or so miles of a thin, winding highway, it took several hours for those buses to pick up all the riders and transport them to that night’s camp. Which was situated—and I am not making this up—two miles from a giant glacier.

The mood at camp that evening seemed almost surreal. Exhausted from the mental and physical stress of the day, yet relieved to have arrived in our tiny, temporary town, riders set up their tents, ate dinner, warmed their hands at a bonfire and hung their soaking clothes on makeshift laundry lines.

As they did, questions floated from rider to rider. No one had seen this coming. Everyone was frozen and tired and wet and sore and deflated by the callous Alaskan countryside. Hundreds and hundreds of bikes still sat by the side of the road where they’d been left by frozen riders, collecting snow.

Would we ride tomorrow’s route? Would they cancel the rest of the Ride? How could we possibly keep going? How could we possibly stop now?

After dinner in our open-air dining tent, Dan Pallotta addressed everyone in our mobile city. Dan had founded Pallotta TeamWorks, the company that produced this and all the other AIDSRides nationwide, as well as all the Breast Cancer 3-Day Walks. These events were considered by many to be the gold standard of event fundraising.

Moreover, this entire Alaskan adventure had evolved from Dan’s own vision of doing something extraordinary—going to the ends of the earth—to support an extraordinary cause. And sure enough, Dan was actually riding the event himself, just like us.

By any yardstick, Dan was an extraordinary speaker. His invocations at the AIDSRides and Breast Cancer 3-Days regularly moved his audiences to tears, including me. His speaking style always hit the orator’s sweet spot: honest, direct, creative, inspiring.

Just one day earlier, during the Opening Ceremonies back in Faribanks, Dan had challenged us to welcome and embrace the adversity we would surely face in the Alaskan wilderness and the learning and growth they’d bring. He declared, “Bring on the wind. Bring on the rain. They are our teachers.” He didn’t mention snow specifically, but in Alaska snow is always in Mother Nature’s bag of tricks.

Yet every speech I’d seen Dan give before enjoyed the benefit of an inspiring occasion, an audience eager to be moved and ample preparation time beforehand. Our predicament lacked all three.

So what would Dan say after this disastrous day? What words would possibly rally, inspire, or even comfort a legion of cold, wet, hungry, tired bike riders, who had trained and fundraised with such vigor and devotion for so many months, when we’d had our collective wind knocked out so quickly?

Dan did something extraordinary in that moment, and I’ll never forget it.

Dan didn’t mention the day we’d had. He didn’t try to buck us up with platitudes about perseverance or remind us of the nobility of our cause. He didn’t motivate us with a guilt trip about keeping all the promises we’d made to our donors, and he didn’t offer a mea culpa for taunting the elements. He didn’t explain why taking two thousand people to the airport four days ahead of schedule wasn’t feasible.

Dan didn’t talk about us at all.

Instead, Dan described his very first attempt to organize a charity bike ride many years earlier, while a student at Harvard. He’d sat in the cafeteria at a folding table with a sign and some literature he’d created, trying to interest the smartest students in the world to spend their summers riding their bicycles across the country to fight hunger. He admitted that as he did, the fear inside him said, “They’ll never do this. Who on earth would do this? I’m crazy for even asking. They’ll laugh at me. I’ll never live this down.”

But a few students did sign up, and then a few more, and then a few more, and Dan did orchestrate a successful ride across America.

Next, Dan told us that years later, when he founded Pallotta TeamWorks to produce similar events and organized the first AIDSRide, he chose his adopted home state of California as its location. He was worried that the Ride, and the mandatory fundraising that went with it (participants had to raise at least $2,500) might have appealed to a handful of crazy college students, but wouldn’t resonate with the adults he was now courting. After all, he told himself, it’s really a college thing. What sane adult with a life and responsibilities would commit to raising at least $2500 and train for months on a bicycle?

And yet, the California AIDSRide picked up about five hundred riders in its first year.

Eventually, Dan decided to launch a second AIDSRide, this one a four-day trek Boston to nearby New York. He admitted that as he sat on the plane to Boston, heading to Provincetown to publicize the ride, he had something of a panic attack. Sure, he thought, the AIDSRide worked in California. Plenty of crazy people there. Lots of donors. Great weather. It’s really a California thing. Northeasterners are different. They won’t get this. I should just stick to running my nice Ride in California, which is going well, instead of launching a whole second event across the country and possibly failing.

But riders did sign up, and donors did give money, and the Boston-New York AIDSRide was born.

The pattern repeated itself as he started AIDSRides in Washington, DC, and Minneapolis, and Texas. Each time, Dan’s fear told him to quit while he was ahead, to be happy with the AIDSRides he was already running. Each time, he stuck with it and established another successful ride in another city.

I don’t remember if Dan segued into a Knute Rockne-type speech about toughing it out and winning one for AIDS victims everywhere. I don’t actually remember him mentioning the day we’d had or the days to come and how we’d get through them. I don’t think he put on a brave face at all.

I just remember Dan standing on a stage, cold, tired and wet, and talking openly, honestly, and nakedly about his own fears to two thousand homesick people shivering in a giant tent, most of whom were there not just for the cause, but for him. No bullet points. No apologies. No strategies. No cover-ups. No spin. Just a guy standing on stage saying “Yeah, I get scared too.”

And in discovering his fear in creating the forefathers our event, he tacitly acknowledged all our fears. He didn’t fix those fears, but he made it OK to be scared. He told us, without ever saying the words, that the Ride would continue as planned. And by the time he finished, that was OK with us.

One of the toughest needles to thread as a speaker is projecting two seemingly contradictory traits: strength and vulnerability. When Dan Pallotta or any executive or politician any leader anywhere speaks, their strength is already assumed.

But when they exhibit true vulnerability—when they share something personal, honest and profound that connects deeply with their audience—that speaker becomes something more than strong; they become human.

Your audience knows you can’t fake a moment like that. They know they are seeing an incredibly rare sight in the public forum: the real and true you, unmasked and naked.

By the way, the next morning, every single one of those hundreds of bikes that had been abandoned in the dark and snow at the Outposts and along dozens of miles of highway was parked and waiting in its assigned spot in the Bike Parking area of camp. As long as I live, I’ll never know how our event crew did it. Amazing.

Click here for a stirring promotional video for the Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride that includes footage of our snowy ride!

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