I was once invited to give a keynote address at an annual conference held in a plush hotel in York.  The delegates, some 250 of them, were managers drawn from all the big pharmaceutical companies.  All but two of the speakers were medical people presenting their findings from impressive research projects. The two exceptions were a man who had survived a recent heart transplant operation and me. 

The heart transplant patient – let’s call him Fred – was scheduled to speak immediately before me; rather odd really since we were the only two ‘outsiders’ due to speak on non-technical subjects. Fred was in his mid fifties, outgoing and cheerful, and, from outward appearances, in the best of health.

If possible I always eavesdrop on conference sessions immediately before mine. It helps me to attune myself to the occasion, to judge the mood of the audience and, if I’m honest, to assess the competition. Usually this serves to boost my confidence as I watch my predecessor make a hash of things by, for example, reading from a script, talking too softly, telling jokes that fall flat, showing too many PowerPoint’s that can’t be read from the back of the room, and so on. Secretly, I feel smug when I witness these unsatisfactory goings-on, sure in the knowledge that it will be relatively easy for me to come up trumps. Sometimes, of course, it works the other way when the speaker before me is brilliant and I realise I’m on a hiding to nothing. This happened once at a sales conference in Birmingham when my predecessor, a flamboyant American, arrived on stage astride a Harley Davidson with headlamps blazing.  He nonchalantly propped the machine up on its stand and proceeded to regale us with stories about incompetent salesmen.  Unfortunately it was highly entertaining and I knew that all was lost. It happened to me again the other day when a well known professor, an expert on education, spoke fluently, knowledgably and, damn it, amusingly to a group of head teachers who hung on his every word.

Well, as you’ll have guessed, Fred upstaged me too.  The audience was entranced by his firsthand account of the agonising wait for a suitable donor heart.  He was in hospital for some months with two companions who were also waiting for suitable hearts. Naturally they became good pals, sharing the many ups and downs, hopes and fears, and getting to know each other’s families.  There were many disappointments along the way when a donor heart became available but, after tests, was deemed unsuitable. The saga ended with Fred getting a suitable heart and his two colleagues dying.

As you can imagine, this was gripping stuff with us all on the edge of our chairs. Even I temporarily forgot that Fred was a competitor.  During the coffee break, delegates queued to shake Fred’s hand and the whole place was buzzing with admiration for the plucky and, damn it, amusing way Fred had told his story.

It is the only time in my life I have felt handicapped by NOT having had a heart transplant.

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