How did "a great deal of interest" for my talk dwindle to "unexpected lack of demand"?

I learnt this morning that the talk I was to give to the British Institute of Business Management in March on the impact of new technology in the next millennium has been cancelled for what the letter describes as "an unexpected lack of demand". This is depressing news. I'd been greatly looking forward to my first-class rail trip to Sheffield and to a fee well in excess of the £40 that I can currently command for postgraduate seminars. It had also been flattering to be told in the letter of invitation that there was "a great deal of local interest" in my forthcoming talk and that similar events in the past had been addressed by such eminent, if mildly incongruous, figures as Sir John Harvey-Jones, Carol Vorderman and Michael Aspel.

I was immediately curious about the origins of the "unexpected lack of demand". What exactly had happened to all that "local interest" in the five weeks between the invitation and its cancellation?

I managed to console myself initially with the possibility that some such apocalyptic event as the appearance of a new meteor in the south Yorkshire sky had led a significant number of Sheffield businesspeople to doubt the possibility of ever making it to the next millennium, never mind having to contend with its new technology.

But there was a much more disagreeable hypothesis to consider. Could the "unexpected lack of demand" have arisen not because of any new-found lack of interest in the subject but as a result of the news that I was the person chosen to address it? I've no idea how Sheffield businesspeople entertain themselves, but it was impossible to dismiss the idea that a number had got together at the Rotary Club one evening and come to a collective decision to absent themselves.

I imagine the conversation starting with some casual inquiry about who would be attending the next meeting of the British Institute of Business Management and then going on to some happy reminiscing about the high quality of the lectures given by Sir John Harvey-Jones, Carol Vorderman and Michael Aspel.

At about this point in the evening, another round of drinks would have been ordered and the talk would have turned quite naturally to this year's topic. It was, they'd all agree with great enthusiasm, a splendid choice of subject. But then would come the moment that dramatically converted "a great deal of local interest" into "an unexpected lack of demand". "And who's the distinguished lecturer?"

I'm not sufficiently lacking in confidence to believe that the announcement of my name by the man with the leaflet at the far end of the table led to anything like an explosion of incredulous laughter. I envisage something more like a 30-second silence during which no one was quite prepared to admit that the name they'd heard was any less familiar than Sir John Harvey-Jones, Carol Vorderman or Michael Aspel. Indeed, in one of my more optimistic scenarios there's even a leading businesswoman at the Rotary table who recalls a person with my name making an entertaining speech at a degree day ceremony she'd attended in Leeds back in the eighties.

I find it helps to face up frankly to the reasons for one's own occasional failures. Now that I've sorted out the unfortunate Sheffield business to my own satisfaction I can concentrate on more positive aspects of my public speaking career, such as popping out to buy the away-day supersaver which next month will carry me up to Keele University for a postgraduate seminar on Baudrillard. The organiser has told me to expect up to 15 people. Apparently, attendance is compulsory.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers