“You’ll be fine, you’ve got clean shoes.”

Funny thing, nerves. Sometimes they appear when you least need them – like when you’re about to get up and speak!

Three years ago I stood at entrance to a school hall full of high school-aged boys and their parents and teachers at a school in Canberra, as guest speaker for their commencement assembly for the year.

I’d been to the school countless times as part of my role for work and had a cup of coffee with the headmaster beforehand. We then walked down to the hall and he went on stage. I stood there in the entrance with the deputy headmaster, a man I’d met on a few occasions and respected, and I looked out to a hall filled with expectant faces wondering who this guy was who was about to get up and talk to them about leadership.

It’s one thing to do media and speech nights and deal with the politicians, but this was something new – a hall filled of teenage boys and here I was to give them a rousing speech, the headmaster wanted, on putting their heads down and never giving up.

At the sight of this audience – an audience that frankly reminded me of me and my mates in too many school assemblies years before – I gulped. Loudly. The deputy headmaster sensed me (heard me?!) and grinned and looked at me up and down.

Tie straight? I wondered. Yep. No coffee on the shirt? Tick.

He smiled.

“You’ll be fine,” he said reassuringly.

“You’ve got clean shoes.”

And so I did. Being the fastidious bugger that I was and am – shoes were cleaned and are cleaned before any speechy / public representative event.

In that moment I stopped being nervous and got over myself and laughed back with him.

He had summed up my speech without knowing it and had provided that gentle jolt to refocus me on the task at hand.

I went up and enjoyed the speech. Months later I moved cities but his comment stuck with me.

‘Clean shoes’ isn’t just the truism, it’s about taking care to work on the detail, to make an effort in the little things, knowing that the sum of them goes to develop the overall impression.

Since that day, ‘clean shoes’ has become an occasional catch-cry for me with the people I’ve worked with and led. It also reminds me – and them – to take your role seriously, but not yourself; to get up knowing you’ve made the effort and taken the time to think about the detail and to care about not only what you say but the manner in which you express yourself.

Nearly two years later I caught up with the teacher when I was back in Canberra and reminded him of his comment.

“Did I say that?” he laughed.

He looked down at my shoes.

“But good to see you’ve still taken my advice…!”

Indeed I did Mr Morrissey. Indeed I did.

…now, if only I’d remembered to do up my laces, which would’ve ensured I didn’t trip into an Adelaide radio station studio when I was a staffer once….really.