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Keep It Simple


Once upon a time, when a manufacturers’ rep was foolish enough to hire me and teach me enough to be dangerous, I suggested to my boss that he would be very smart if he allowed me to do a seminar for contractors about steam heating. I explained that we could charge the contractors to come and listen to my brilliance and that this might even become a profit center for the company.

“Do you think they will pay?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” I said. “If we don’t charge, it won’t be worth anything to them. Contractors are like that.”

“Okay,” he said.

“How much should we charge?”

“Let’s make it thirty bucks,” I said, which seemed like a lot at the time. He nodded and I smiled.

When my first seminar sold out in a day I looked like a genius, even though “sold out” in those days meant just 30 tickets. That’s as many burly contractors as we could shoehorn into our conference room. I explained that we would be giving them donuts and coffee in the morning and sandwiches at lunchtime. The contractors jumped at that. They really like to eat.

I began speaking at 9 AM that day, and by 10:15 AM, and much to my astonishment, I had told the contractors all that I knew about steam heating. In an attempt to stretch the seminar to 5 PM, I asked if there were any questions.

A gnarled contractor who was old enough to be my grandpa raised his hand and asked me a question I couldn’t answer about boiler-feed pumps. I did my best to mumble with authority but he just shook his head sadly. Then he walked to the front of the room, held out his hand for the chalk, and told me to go sit in the back as he taught the class for the rest of the day. I learned a lot.

Several years went by before I decided to try the seminar thing again. I had learned more by then. There’s nothing magical about learning more. You just have to study a lot, but I thought my new seminar should also have some pizzazz. I wanted props. I realized that props might make things more complicated, but I shrugged that thought off. Contractors love props almost as much as they love food. Props are cool.

We had a magic shop in our neighborhood so I stopped in there one day in December and asked the guy behind the counter if he could help me out with some props that would work well with a seminar about steam heating. He thought for a moment and then walked me down an aisle and showed me a coloring book.

“Watch,” he said, holding the book at shoulder height. “When it comes to steam heating,” he said, “your mind is probably a blank page” He flipped the pages of the coloring book, which were all blank. I nodded. He closed the book and flipped the pages again. “But I’m here to show you the big pictures!” he said, and this time, there were uncolored pictures every page.

“Wow!” I said. "How did you do that?”

“I did that very well,” he said. “And so will you. But wait; there’s more. When I’m done with this class, all of the colors of steam heating will be visible in your mind’s eye.” He flipped the pages and there they were - all the colors of the rainbow, filling every picture on every page.

“Wow!” I said.

“Wow indeed!” he said, “And for just ten dollars I’ll show you how the magic works.”

I couldn’t pay him fast enough.

I used my magic coloring book to kick off my seminar the following week. “When it comes to steam heating,” I said, “you are probably a blank page.” I flipped through the pages of the book, which were completely filled with all the colors of the rainbow. I looked at the pages and then flipped them again with the same result.

I put the book down and talked about where the air vent belongs on a one-pipe-steam radiator.

“What was that business with the coloring book?” a burly contractor asked me through a mouthful of donut when I asked if there were any questions. I shrugged.

But I’m not a quitter. I went back to the magic shop.

“Do you have any tricks that have to do with books?” I asked the guy behind the counter. “I have some old books about heating that I show at my seminar. Do you have anything fun I can add to that? Maybe a prop book that does magic?”

He nodded and we walked another aisle. He reached up and grabbed a black book off the shelf. “This one is amazing,” he said. “It’s not really a book. It’s a trick and I can’t show you how it works in here because of the fire code." I nodded. “I’ll explain,” he said, opening the book. It was made of metal and hollowed out. In the hollow was a large wick. “You soak this with lighter fluid,” he said, pointing at the wick. “Then you close the cover and push this little button here on the book’s spine.” I hadn’t noticed the button until he showed it to me. “That button connects to a piezo igniter, like the one in a gas grill. You’ll hear a woomp sound when you hit it. That’s the wick igniting. Open the cover when you hear that sound and a flame about a foot high will jump out of the book. Close the cover quickly and the flame will go out.”

“Wow!” I said.

I practiced with it a few times and then got ready to dazzle the contractors at my next seminar.

“I like books,” I said, holding up a real book. “That’s how I learned all about steam heating. This book is about boilers.” I had their attention. Good. I held up another book. “This one is about steam piping.” They nodded. And then I reached for my brand-new magic book. “This one,” I said, holding it far above my head so that all could see, “is a book about combustion!” I pressed the button, heard the WOOMP of ignition, and I opened the cover. That’s when I noticed that my arm was on fire.

Did you know that gravity causes lighter fluid to flow downhill? It’s true.

I waved my flaming arm around and shouted as the burly contractors watched. They thought this was hilarious, all part of Dan’s big show. Oh, that Dan is so funny! Gosh, this is a great seminar!

One of the contractors finally realized that I was not supposed to be one of the props, or on fire, and he extinguished me with his jacket. I thanked him and decided to leave magic to the magicians. To each, his or her own trade.

Lesson learned.

If you want to get your message across:

  1. Take the time to actually learn your subject before you open your mouth.
  2. Know that word pictures are better (and far safer) than props.
  3. Keep it simple.

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