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  • Writer's pictureBethany Crystal

Losing your voice at the most inconvenient times

Chapter House Rules It was the week of sorority recruitment my senior year in college. This is always the "all hands on deck" time for every girl in the chapter house. For those of you unfamiliar with the scene, it's nonstop talking. Over the course of a single day, you might engage in 24 different conversations. And this happens for about four or five days straight, all the way up until "Bid Night" when the lucky girls find out which sorority house they'll land in, and everybody screams their lungs out over it all night long. You might think it's more stressful to be the freshman going through recruitment, as opposed to our vantage point from the other side, but I'm afraid that's not the case. As opposed to simply self-imposed stress, you've also got generalized stress from everyone around you, abound with promises to recruit "the best class ever" and a whole set of appearances and standards to maintain. You've got to reset the house from looking like a fashion show runway one day to looking like a nightclub the next, all on about 3 minutes of sleep. Oh, and did I forget to mention that you still have classes and homework to worry about, too? (It's little wonder that people get sick.) As a senior in the chapter house, I was setting the example for younger women around me. As a result, I was trusted to handle some of the special cases in our recruitment flow; girls we knew we wanted to close on choosing us. So being able to wittily converse and chat with these folks would be crucial to our success in recruitment that year. Except of course that I couldn't speak. The morning of our biggest day of the year, I sheepishly entered the chapter house and whispered to those around me about my plight. "Have you tried tea?" one of them asked. I nodded. "With honey?" someone else piped in. A second nod. "My mom knows this special formula that you heat up like a tea and drink twice a day," volunteered a third person. "Just don't speak from now until tonight," came the verdict. "I'm sure you'll be better by then." By evening, I could barely even utter, "hello." Much to everyone's dismay, I was pulled from the main stage. Kitchen duty in the basement for me for the rest of the week. (And yes, I recognize now the irony that the sick girl is sent to help in the kitchen. But these things don't strike you when you're 20.) It was one of my most disappointment moments in college, to not be able to be front and center when the team needed me most.

A Nightmare on the Vegas Strip The second time I lost my voice was just as bad. I was pulling a double-header trip during my time on the marketing team at Stack Overflow. It was risky, but I'd done it before, and besides, it was the most effective way to spend time on the west coast. After a week in San Francisco interviewing customers for our buyer personas project, the plan was to meet several representatives from our sales team in Las Vegas for our biggest developer conference of the year: AWS re:Invent. At the time, this conference convened over 20,000 software developers together in one place to talk shop, learn, and have fun. As it turned out, simply putting up a "Stack Overflow" banner at any large developer event would be enough to be swarmed at the booth for 6 hours straight every day. If we weren't careful, we'd blow through all 500 t-shirts we brought in the first 30 minutes. I knew better by then that we'd need to ration them over time. But of course, I didn't go to give away t-shirts; I went to sell. "Is your company hiring more developers?" I'd ask. "Have you ever used Stack Overflow's hiring products to promote your job openings or discover new great talent?" The best conversations were with engineering managers or directors who we'd catch in the midst of a big upcoming hiring spree. But a thoughtful sales process, much like a thoughtful sorority recruitment campaign, takes time and energy to get right. You might spend 15-20 minutes at a time with someone to really understand their story and catch all of the right details. The night I arrived in Vegas, my sore throat had progressed from bad to worse. Over dinner that night, I used a pen and paper to order a hot tea with lemon at the bar as I had flashbacks to sorority recruitment in college. "Not again," I vowed. The next morning before the trade show began, I went to the local "Minute Clinic" in the CVS on the strip and diagnosed positive for strep throat. "That's fine," I barely eeked out, as the doctor wrote me a prescription for Ammoxicilin. "But can you do anything about my voice?" The doctor shrugged in return. "Try some tea with honey?" What is it with this notion that honey fixes everything?! That said, to be safe, on the way to the expo hall floor in the Venetian, I ordered a large hot tea, filled up an entire second cup full of lemons, and packed a dozen honey packets into the pockets of my blazer. When the sales team arrived, I explained my predicament: "I might be a little more offline than in previous years," I warned them. "But that doesn't mean our mission has changed at all. This is our biggest event opportunity for sales leads all year. I'll hold down the booth as best as I can while you work the floor. If I need to tap out, I'll let you know." And so, I stayed on the floor, chugging hot water with lemon around the clock. In between conversations with attendees, I'd squeeze a little honey into my mouth and keep going. By day three, I was finally feeling well enough to add a little whiskey to my tea and call it a day. In the end, I felt that we did a pretty good job, but not a great job. And I only wished I had been there in "peak form" to support the team and the company.

Losing your words I'm the kind of person who generally always has a lot to say. Losing my voice (I mean, literally) never comes easily for me. I act a little insolent even when doctors encourage me not to speak, even when I know it's for the best. I tend to stretch my vocal cords to their outer limits, extending a period of "half-speech" for longer than is necessary, just to prevent an all-out silence. I've been in enough places by now to know what it's like to lose your voice even when you do have the ability to speak. More than once, I've chosen silence or inaction, either by some social forcing factor from people around me, or from my own fear of speaking out. I hate thinking back to the moments in my life when I failed to speak up about something, even though I may have wanted to. This is the kind of thing I intend to do less and less the older I get. And that's why I like to fight to keep it around. Dramatic event fiascos aside, losing my ability to speak is a terrifying and unnerving thought. The good news is, at least this time around, I don't have any major events to prepare for this week. The bad news, of course, is that I probably won't get as good of a story out of it this time.

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