Public speaking

Yesterday I was scanning Safari books online while waiting for an R job to finish and I came across Confessions of a Public Speaker. One of the great things about working at this university is the free desktop access to Safari books online, but even so I occasionally shell out for a physical copy. This book might be one of those, not because I want to have a physical copy, but so I can share the tips with my wife who is starting to speak more and more in public.

But this post isn’t about plugging the book, it is about my experience with public speaking.

I’ve never been afraid to speak to a crowd. I remember even in grade school always reading in front of the school, or singing, or whatever. It never really bothered me. (It is interesting to me that I see the same qualities in my older daughter, but not my younger daughter).

I’ve done both off the cuff talking, and well written, well rehearsed speeches. Lately I do off-the-cuff stuff as a rule in meetings and in presentations to small groups, but I must say my fondest memories of public speaking were those I rehearsed.

The best was my campaign speech for student body president of my grade school. Yes, our grade school was quite progressive in that we had a student council. Everybody’s speeches were more or less the same.

Hi my name is *mumble mumble* and I’m running for commissioner of something or other. I will work hard and do a good job and so on and so forth and please vote for me. Thank you.

I was stumped as to how to write something different than that, and I was kicking around ideas with my mom and somehow I came up with the idea of mocking the standard speech. I took a deep breath and channeled my best droning monotone to start my speech. Then after the line “I’m running for president” (I think the office title was something like commissioner general), I paused tooo looong, rolled my eyes, and said “Biiig deal” in as loud and sarcastic a voice as I could. That just shocked the crowd. I swear some of the nuns actually gasped in horror!

But of course, the rest of my speech set things right. “You bet it’s a big deal!” I said, and went on to say what an important job the commissioner general or whatever was, and what an important choice the voters had in front of them when they cast their ballots. I never made any “political promises”, and I never really said I would do a good job, and some of my friends even noticed that fact. I won by a landslide.

I had a similar experience in high school but with a different outcome. My speech was pretty good, and I made some comment about “why can’t we wear jeans to school?” that got a big round of applause. But after the speeches, the moderator had each of us say something else, and I wasn’t ready and said something and I could feel the crowd get instantly bored with me. That election also taught me something about politics and democracy. Out of 900 or so students, only 100 or so voted, and I only got something like 40 votes to Bobby Satterfield’s 60+. In hindsight I’m pretty glad I wasn’t the student body president in high school, but to this day I still have no idea why the vast majority of classmates were so abysmally apathetic. Had I just focused on getting 20 more people to vote for me instead of targeting all 900, I would have won. §

The only other prepared speech that I remember that went pretty well was in college at HMC during engineering clinic presentations. My team leader was adamant that we all write down our speeches and memorize them word for word. I discovered that I don’t work that way. I could tell it was driving him crazy that each time I practiced my speech the text was different, I floundered, got lost, stammered, and took an enormous amount of time. But eventually I jelled on the same set of words that came naturally to me while standing in front of the lecture hall, and was hitting my time limit right on.

On the day of, I remember I stumbled once, but since I had been stumbling around for days, it wasn’t a problem. I just recovered onto one of my many “alternate versions”. The take home lesson for me from that speech was that I can memorize speeches, but that my written essays are nothing like how I speak, and so it is pointless for me to try to memorize what I’ve written first. Now I start with an outline and write down what I say as I say it, and memorize the passages that sound good, and try to avoid passages that get me into trouble. But I can’t go from the written word to the spoken word.

And sometimes I do indeed get the shaking hands, sweaty palms, I’m going to throw up panic attack.

The worst case was our high school band spring concert, in which I had a clarinet solo that I didn’t really have down. The setup was that we had the best 6 or so musicians from each section stand up off to the side of the band doing a little dixieland jazz thing. I was only the best player in the clarinet section by abdication; I had a friend Jeff Elmassian who had actually quit the band to spend more time working on his clarinet pieces for real orchestras. Jeff was great. Compared to him, I sucked.

And more importantly, compared to the piece, I sucked. The piece was hard, and although I practiced diligently, I couldn’t get my tongue to move and my fingers to fly like they needed to over one particular passage. My solo started, and my nerves and my incompetence killed me, and I just choked. Playing a wind instrument when you’ve got horrendous nerves is the worst, as your air column goes out the window and the tone quality is bargain basement.

As I flubbed the run, the band director gave me a look that said “WTF!??” but I carried on, and improvised something that had some of the same notes I was supposed to play. In the video it didn’t look too horrible. Strangely as soon as that complete disaster happened, I felt much better. I remember thinking “Okay, the worst has happened, let’s do thing thing” and I was on it for the rest of the night. The second half of the show we had to sing, and I was the first of the 12 sons of Jacob to enter the stage in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Some of the others were nervous, but I was just pumped to get out there and sing.

One other area I got horrible stage fright in was at the start of races. Junior year in high school, I got tired of being cut from baseball and basketball teams so I decided to run cross country. I was on JV, there was no pressure on me, and I was solidly in the middle of our team. But at the first race, a big pre-season invitational, I was scared stiff when it came time to step onto the pavement behind the line and start the race. Every single race I’ve ever run always involved a significant amount of pre-race stage fright. And at no time in any of those races was my team expecting me to win or even place in the top 3 (track) or 7 (CC). It’s funny how the body works.

Since college, most of my nerves have come before giving presentations at conferences to complete strangers. Usually if I know the material, I’m not cold-sweat nervous, but usually do get the jitters. I’m usually worried my material is too boring, or not suitable for the audience. But as the author of the book says, those jitters usually help the speech.

The only time I’ve ever been really panicked when speaking is the first time I had to teach a civil engineering class. I worked really hard on the lecture, and it was air tight (and exceedingly boring), and I was very prepared for probably the first few weeks of class on that first day. But despite all that preparation, I was still screamingly nervous.

I remember looking out at the students in the room and saying to myself “what’s the big deal, why are you so nervous? It’s just a class, they are excited to be here and see their friends after summer break, and no one really cares about me personally” But none of that helped. So I waited until the time to start, and I spoke loudly, and within about 10 minutes I was rolling along fine.

Then the next lecture rolled around, and I was again a nervous wreck! For maybe the first three weeks of the ten week course, I was consumed with stage fright at the beginning of each lecture.

Just today I had to give a presentation that ballooned from 4 or 5 people at a small conference table to about 20 people in a much larger conference room. Having just read parts of the Confessions… book, I was analyzing whether or not I was nervous. I don’t think I was, although at the same time I was very aware of my movements in front of the room, and I could feel eyes upon me. That’s the kind of nervous energy I like. Just enough to make me more aware of my surroundings, not enough to cause my hands to shake and my voice to quaver.

§ And there it is: special interest politics in a microcosm. The creepy tea party folks are winning here and there because they’re focusing on convincing 20 people to vote and ignoring the other 780…the rest of us.

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