Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking...
How many amateur orators have started out a nerve-wracked speech with those words. They warn the audience that they are not used to public speaking, but don’t quite explain why they agreed to do so in the first place. They seem to think that the disclaimer will earn forgiveness and sympathy should their words fail to live up to expectations– in fact, the opening statement itself automatically lowers expectations by about 50 percent and may, in some way, help to ease the pressure and discomfort for the speaker.
A good many years ago (over 60, in fact) I suffered through a semester of speeches, both impromptu and well-thought-out, in my high school speech class. At first, my ears burned with self-consciousness, my voice became weak and wobbly, my hands and knees shook, and I forgot half of what I intended to say. At my kindly teacher’s suggestion, I tried a number of remedies that had been supposedly helpful to other students during her long teaching career.
The suggestion to write key words on note cards didn’t help. Intended to help me remember the main points of my speech, the words failed to trigger my prepared remarks, instead they left me standing, puzzled, staring at the card, wondering what on earth I had intended to say about THAT.
We tried picking out one friendly face in the audience and pretending that there were just the two of us and I was simply explaining my ideas to a friend. I guess my peripheral vision was too good or something, for I couldn’t ignore all those other faces in the room, the eyes focused on me, anticipating that I might actually say something interesting. Deer in the headlights– my mind froze in place and the friend that I had thought would calm me by her patient attitude became embarrassed and looked away. I honestly don’t know whether or not I even finished that speech. All I remember is the sensation of my head growing larger like a balloon and a humming noise that grew louder and louder. I may have fainted.
My aunt suggested that I try imagining the audience sitting there in their underwear. As a modest teenager, I had enough trouble seeing the girls in my class changing clothes in the locker room after gym class. Imagining the boys in their underwear would have sent me screaming home to Mother. I didn’t even attempt that solution.
The short impromptu speeches were, somehow, easier to organize and to deliver and, after agonizing for most of the semester, I decided that trying to give a formal speech, with outline and organized notes was only making it more difficult. So, I went for informal and disorganized.
My dad pointed out that I could talk a blue streak when the topic was something I knew well and cared about personally. It seemed that it was those assigned topics that had to be researched that were the root of my problem. I had some problems with some of the speeches for the remainder of that semester, but I actually began to enjoy what had previously been a dreaded torture.
The assigned speeches were the worst. It was the way I had to misinterpret the assignment that earned me lower grades, though my teacher did give me credit for much improved delivery. A speech about soil conservation, for instance, became a description of my three uncles combining oats on their farm and of my grandfather, stationed atop the growing straw-stack, doing an impromptu Irish jig when a mouse ran up inside the leg of his bib overalls. I had to plead that the use of the straw in the chicken house, the garden, and the farrowing pens where the baby pigs were born constituted conservation. I didn’t mention that my grandfather had a tendency to go commando during hot weather and that he shed those overalls in record time when the mouse invaded.
Because the story of Grandpa’s dance on the straw-stack was a familiar one that had been told around the dinner table dozens of times, it was easy for me to retell as a speech, and I had the added advantage of knowing pretty much what the reaction of the audience would be. I was beginning to understand what kept stand-up comedians coming back for more. I had lots of family stories to tell, and they got me through the rest of that semester. I ended up with a B-minus, which wasn’t bad, considering that my speeches didn’t exactly adhere to the assignment. I did learn to enjoy standing up in front of a roomful of people and telling them something that they found entertaining. It wasn’t such a leap, then, to learn to tell them something informative– though not as much fun.