December 06, 2009

The Great Orator

I can't speak in public.  Period.  I suppose there are caveats to that statement.  If a terrorist group were holding members of my family or friends hostage, and it came down to either speaking to the regional chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution about the evils of Green Energy or them having their throats cut, I imagine I would feed compelled to speak.  But it would depend on who the family members or friends were and whether they owed me money.  And the resulting speech wouldn't be pretty.

I don't know exactly when my fear of public speaking developed, but I imagine it was in grade school.  Like most kids in that age group, we had to present book reports to the class on occasion.  This involved reading a book, writing a report on that book, and then standing in front of your 30 or so classmates ... all alone and reading that report.  I never could figure out why we had to read the report.  After all, I've written the damn report already, so why couldn't I just make mimeograph copies of it and distribute it to everyone, or better yet, just post it on my facebook page.  This was the disadvantage of growing up in the technologically challenged late '50's and early 60's.  The idea of standing in front of all of those little people and giving them my views on "Call  of the Wild" terrified me.  I mean really, I didn't like this book, why does anyone else want to hear about it?

Seeing as I knew I was going to be a quivering mass of jello in front of the group, I varied my strategies for the inevitable.  Sometimes I would volunteer to go first.  The was meant to be a favor to the class in general.  I would stink up the place so bad that anyone who went after me would look like William Jennings Bryan in comparison. And other times, I would deftly maneuver in order to be dead last, in hope that the class we be so bored out of their minds from the deluge of previous speakers that they wouldn't pay attention to me, and I could stammer and fidget to my hearts content, and no one would even notice.

Even at that young age, I had the ability to tell myself that this was just a phase.  That I would get better at public speaking and would lose this irrational fear.  But I didn't.  In high school, I hated it just as much.  During my junior year, a young lady who I liked very much asked me to join the debate team with her.  Instead of joining and enjoying the very real probability of gaining a steady girlfriend, I declined her invitation.

What was really strange during this period, was that I played a musical instrument, and entered numerous local and state competitions, where I performed in front of judges and rooms full of people with no problem. But when asked to give my name and the title of my piece before hand, I would stammer and shake in my boots.

Once I left school, it didn't get any better.  Who would have thought that I would have to speak before groups of people when I entered the work force?  Well, being pretty fucking stupid, I didn't and soon faced the cold reality of having to speak in public once again.

The first company that I worked for out of college had all of its trainees take "The Dale Carnegie Public Speaking Course", which to me seemed like a weekly meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.  A group of us would gather in a church basement, smoking cigarettes and listening to the moderator.  At some point during the meeting, each one of us would get up and mumble an extemporaneous speech, which was followed by unenthusiastic hand clapping from the other members of the group.  At the end of the course, I was given a certificate, which I half-heartedly pinned to my bulletin board at work until I realized that it made me look like a doofus and threw it away.

And so it went for 30 years.  I would do my best to avoid speaking in public, but would be sucked into it anyway for meetings and conferences.  And the results were always the same.  I would stammer and shake.  My knees would knock and I would melt into a fetid puddle of flop sweat. And afterwards, the sympathetic people in my audience would come up to me and tell me that they could tell I was nervous, but they learned a lot from my talk.


The culmination of my speaking metier came with a course forced upon me offered by my "career company". This was a public speaking boot camp, populated with 15 other public speaking challenged co-workers and held at an undisclosed location where we would be out of touch with the outside world for one week.  We chose our subject, carefully crafted our 15 minute speeches and were drilled on the basics of speaking techniques.  On the final day, we delivered our speech to our fellow participants ... and a video camera.

I gave my speech, received my video tape and a handshake and returned home.  That night, after everyone had gone to bed, I slipped the tape in the VCR and settled back to watch with a stiff drink.  I was totally appalled.  I knew I was bad, but I had no idea I was that bad.  I finished my drink, removed the tape from the machine and threw it in the trash, where it would never harm society.

At that moment, I had an epiphany.  I stunk and would always stink as a public speaker.  So I embraced my stinkiness.  And as so often happens during these times of clarity.  Nothing changed but my mindset. Who the fuck cares if I can't speak in public?  Certainly not me.

Several years after that incident, I found myself in a grueling two day job interview with a company in Ohio. Toward the end of this marathon, I sat before the management group and was asked how I felt about speaking before groups, as the job would entail meeting with present customers and prospective clients.  I could have lied and said that my ability was a thing to behold and that I was the greatest thing since sliced bread.  But I didn't.  I told them that I would talk if I had to, but frankly, I was terrible at it.

I didn't get the job, and I don't know whether it was that comment that turned out to be the deal breaker.  But I think that my non-ability in that one area saved me and my family from a chilling fate.

Spending the rest of our days on earth in Dayton, Ohio.

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