Ted Koppel, the former host of ABC’s Nightline, was a fixture on my family’s living room television when I was growing up. I watched his show several times each week, and had an enormous amount of respect for his approach to journalism.
So when I started my job as a production coordinator for Nightline in 1997, I was petrified to meet him. When he approached me for the first time, I shook his hand and told him how honored I felt to work for him. I could barely get the words out. At the end of our brief exchange, I took a step forward, caught my foot on a file cabinet, and fell to my hands. I was mortified.
Today’s post will address a public speaking challenge few coaches ever discuss: how to act around famous people.
If you’ve ever watched someone who is in the presence of a celebrity, you may have observed the awkward, often stuttering exchange that often occurs. It’s uncomfortable to watch. Perhaps it’s happened to you, too.
Fortunately, I’ve learned a few things along the way—which is a good thing, since my occupation frequently has me working with high-profile public figures.
The most important lesson I ever received came from Ted Koppel’s personal assistant, a man who gave people flack for sport. When we walked into ABC’s green room together one night to greet guest John Waters (the film director best known for Hairspray), I was shocked to see him tease Waters. When we walked out of the green room and I told Koppel’s assistant that I couldn’t believe he said that to Waters, he replied with wisdom I’ve never forgotten: Since celebrities are used to having sycophants around them all the time, he said, they appreciate people who treat them like they’d treat everyone else.
That’s not to say that you have to give public figures grief—but the more “normal” you can keep the exchange, the more comfortable it will be for everyone involved. If you admire a specific project they’ve worked on, it’s okay to acknowledge that. I recently told a singer-songwriter how much one of his songs helped me during a difficult period in my life. But I quickly moved on and didn’t come close to crossing the line between admiration and idol worship.
When I’m around a public figure these days, I don’t spend a lot of time fawning over their celebrity status. After offering a quick compliment related to something about their work I admire, I quickly move on to deal with the business at hand, joke with them like I would any other client, and deliver the direct advice that other people hesitate to deliver.
So remember this advice the next time you work for or collaborate with a celebrity: Keep it cool. Act normal. And instead of pretending that you feel perfectly at ease, focus on trying to put them at ease, instead.
Have you worked with public figures or celebrities? If so, how have you managed your interactions with them? Please leave your experiences in the comments section below.
John Waters Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Mr Azed