There’s a statistic about public speaking that goes like this: people who fear speaking in front of a crowd fear it more than spiders, heights, confined spaces, and even death, actually seeing it as a legitimate form of torture. I can completely relate. Though I would have to point out that the only person to have actually DIED from giving a speech was William Henry Harrison, our ninth president. He gave a two hour inaugural speech on a cold and wet day in March with neither overcoat nor hat, and proceeded to ride on his horse to the inaugural ceremony and through the parade similarly exposed. Very shortly thereafter, he developed pneumonia and a month later he was gone. I would argue in this case that it probably wasn’t actually the public speaking that did him in, but rather the foolishness of not wearing the proper protection against a winter’s day in Washington, DC.
I’ve had a fear of speaking in public for some time now, though I’ve been reasonably sure I wouldn’t die as a result. It wasn’t always this way for me. When I was in middle school coming into my own as an awkward and sometimes obnoxious pre-teen looking for attention, I had no problem getting in front of people to speak, dance, and otherwise act foolishly. I was on a debate team where, of course, I had to go in front of my class and be verbally persuasive. I even ran for office and won, becoming the president of my 8th grade class! I had big plans for high school and college, and I knew that being able to get some face time in front of crowds would be really helpful in my endeavors.
Somewhere around the time I started high school, something happened. I became VERY self-conscious and insecure. All the activities in which I’d wanted to participate going into school, like the debate club, spirit club, the theatre company… I not only shied away from them, I found myself going out of my way to remain unseen and unheard. Collaboration in the classroom was not excluded. You know, when the teacher puts a small group of students together to work on a problem or come up with ideas for a project, I was always the one taking notes, the one silently nodding in agreement with… well whatever, I wasn’t about to put my 2 cents in, even if it meant sacrificing my grade. It was all part of my mission to REMAIN, at all cost, unseen and unheard.
Life after high school continued in much the same fashion. I became more of a “one-on-one conversation” sort of person, a “non-participant if it means the spotlight” sort of person, a “wall flower who walks softly and speaks softly so as to not rock the boat” sort of person. I had gone into hiding.
Well, then I became a mom. There’s no being a wall flower when you’re a mom. One MUST speak up TO one’s child, and speak up FOR one’s child (which will invariably rock SOMEBODY’S boat). Fortunately for both my children and myself, the fierce Mama-Bear won out over the Wall Flower.
Soon after that, my husband became involved in the organization Rotary, where he eventually became president of his club and a sought-after MC for Rotary events. (Now, my husband has always been a great public speaker. He’s witty and funny and has a strong voice with good projection. Above all, speaking in front of a crowd really appeals to his inner HAM. I felt the beginnings of a little competition in this area.) As the spouse, I was expected to follow along, which meant meeting a lot of new people who were curious about me, my family, and my experiences, forcing me to pay attention to how I spoke and what I spoke about. Each conversation was a little bit like mini-public speaking. Every event I went to with my husband presented the opportunity for successive rapid-fire Table-Topic discussions. I soon realized that I needed to create a sort of elevator synopsis for each topic that came up. That wasn’t so hard: there were the standard questions like, “where are you from?”, “where did you and your husband meet?”, “what do you do?”, “Don’t you just love Rotary?” The dependability of these questions arising made it easier for me to focus on how I presented myself: was I being succinct or was I rambling? Was I able to inject some humor into my stories? Did I carry myself with confidence and maintain eye contact, or was I fidgeting and making shifty eye movements? Was I representing myself and my husband in a way I was proud of? Without knowing it, my experience as a Rotary Spouse and, as my husband would say, being dragged all over Central California for partying cleverly disguised as “Service Above Self” (District 5240 is a feisty group!) was grooming me for public speaking. I was on my way!
But I still had a way to go. The culminating moment slapped me square in the face, when in 2005 my best friend in the whole world of 26 years, announced that she was getting married. Well, I thought, if there’s ever a time to put myself out on that proverbial limb, it’s to express my love, gratitude, and joy for my best friend’s happiness. And I would be giving my declaration of congratulations to a frighteningly large group of mildly inebriated people. This was my challenge.
Two weeks before the wedding, I wrote my speech. There was a lot I wanted to say, but in the interest of not putting everyone to sleep, I pared it down, and pared it down again. While practicing, I realized that in my nervousness I might have a hard time remembering my lines, so I pared it down yet again, until I had something short and punchy, yet heartfelt.
So the day arrived. It was beautiful, of course. My dear friend, who can plan a party like nobody else I know, put on quite a lovely display for herself and her groom. She could give Martha Stewart a run for her money. The bride, myself, and the bride’s maids were professionally coiffed like so many poodles readied for show. I don’t usually go on about my appearance, but I have to admit, we all looked stunning: the up-do, the flawless dramatic makeup, the formal gown… It was like a fairy tale for me, almost as much as for the bride. We floated through the ceremony without a hitch; the food was delectable; the music was enchanting; everything was pretty perfect, and as I gloated on behalf of my dear friend, I also couldn’t help but move through the whole affair with my heart in my throat just waiting for the moment when I would have to go stand next to the happy couple and speak my congratulations into the microphone to the crowd. I. WAS. PETRIFIED. I tried going over my speech in my head thinking that if I reassured myself with still knowing what the heck I was going to say, that my nerves would calm… but NO. I couldn’t remember a single word. My husband must have seen the look of panic on my face, because he came over to ask me how I was doing.
“I can’t remember a single word of my speech!” I said, only back then, I inserted a few panicked expletives. He took my hand and calmly led me to the table where rows of champagne were conveniently filled with the bubbly nerve tonic. He handed me a glass. I took a sip. He motioned with hand as if to say, “Bottoms up, Girlie Girl.” I obeyed. Take a deep breath, he said. Take another deep breath, he said. He proceeded to walk me through what I had practiced with him and helped me pick out the bare essentials of what I wanted to communicate, only the really important stuff, the stuff that came purely from my heart. It was so short, but she was my best friend. We’d been through so much together. She didn’t need a dissertation on love, marriage, and friendship. Just an expression of gratitude, a heartfelt wish for deep and lasting connection between her and her new life partner, and a toast to my Soul Sister and my new Soul Brother-in-Law.
The moment came, and I went up and said just that. I said it beautifully, and she received it beautifully. And I’m so proud to say that I neither threw up, nor passed out. I even received some praise for delivering my heartfelt words. I knew then that I wanted to learn how to do that again. I had started my journey toward public speaking.