Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Humor Me: Public speaking nightmares


In a recent letter to the editor in The Dallas Morning News, a 14-year-old pointed out that his high school's requirement of one semester of speech should be eliminated.

"High school is supposed to help get you ready to go into college and the business world," he wrote. "If someone's career will involve speech, then he or she can take it."

The letter was well-written, especially for a 14-year-old. But I think the requirement of a speech class should remain, and here are two reasons why:

First, no matter what you do in life, the skill of public speaking is useful if not essential. If you can look someone in the eye and deliver your thoughts with confidence, or at least without throwing up, you'll have a key ingredient to success.

And second, and nearly as important, I want other people to go through what I had to go through in high school. That's right, leaders of tomorrow, it's your turn to feel the terror of public speaking today! But don't worry. Your high school speech experience will probably be like mine, and you'll quickly learn how to stand in front of a crowd and babble randomly and nervously while nearly tipping over the lecturn with trembles of panic.

My speech I most remember from high school was on eliminating nuclear weapons. It should be noted that I’ve never had a negative opinion of nukes, but after a teacher assigned me the speech, I did had a very negative opinion of him.

Don’t be nervous, Mr. Stewart told the class before our first speaking assignment. He then passed along the well-worn strategy of picturing audience members in their underwear. Apparently, this is a popular strategy for dealing with nervousness. It was even mentioned in an episode of "The Brady Bunch," the most influential show ever to have nine people living in a house with three bathrooms. (Or was it two? Did Alice the housekeeper have her own bathroom? Hmm ... perhaps it's the subject for a high school speech.)

But the thought of picturing people in their underwear doesn’t ease my nerves. I think it would just make me feel overdressed and consider hanging out with other people. So I skipped that strategy as I took on nuclear weapons.

“Since the United States first developed an atom bomb …”

I think that’s how the speech started, but I don’t really remember. I can’t remember how it ended, either. But I do remember that when my name was called to give the speech on nuclear weapons, a part of me hoped somebody would use one to destroy the school.

Pretty selfish, I know. So many innocent people would die. But at least my classmates would be spared from seeing me trembling behind a lecturn, sifting through sweat-smeared notecards and staring down at the floor as I talked about global disarmament.

Actually, there’s no way I used the phrase “global disarmament.” It might’ve been in the notes, but when lips are frozen in fear, any words over two syllables are a struggle. I probably said something like, “all countries should seek ‘golf ball dish ornament.’”

Fortunately, my classmates weren’t listening. This was guaranteed because it took a week to finish everyone’s speeches and we didn’t know when Mr. Stewart would call on us. So while I was mumbling about “new clear pro lifter raisins” — a.k.a. nuclear proliferation — the other students were doing one of two things:

Daydreaming in a euphoria that kicked in the moment they finished stumbling through a speech on capital punishment, abortion, gun control or another controversial topic.

Praying to the heavens that they would not be next, and because God might not intervene, following up the prayer with a telepathic message to the teacher that said, “please, please, PLEASE … anyone but me.”

It was horrible. But I did learn some things from speech class. Most notably that, when giving a speech, I had a nervous habit of scratching my eyebrow every few seconds. And that even “ultra dry” antiperspirants are no match for terror sweat.

I also learned a couple of other tips. The first one sounds strange, but it’s really true: you should exercise a few minutes before the speech.


Because exercise transforms nervous energy into enthusiasm. Those smooth operators at Toastmasters International even recommend it.

They don’t however, recommend it during the speech. But if you get nervous midway through, why not? Few things liven up a dull presentation like a well-executed back handspring. Just make sure you stick the landing.

I also remember that visualization of success is important. You should try it before your next speech. Moments before zero hour, picture yourself giving a clear, effective delivery and the audience rising to give you a standing ovation.

You can also plan to visualize the audience in their underwear if you want. But in that case, please don’t ask me to be in the audience.

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