Just listened to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, and I got to thinking about my own illustrious speech-making career.
In my case, fear didn’t describe it. It was more like catatonic paralysis. Years ago, faced with having to “speechify” in front of some national meetings drove me to join Toastmistress.
This might be the time to yield to overwhelming popular demand (from my sister Joan) and tell you the story of my terror and how it culminated in a “free” trip to Australia many years ago. I was competing as the U.S. contestant from the Pacific Northwest in an international Toastmistress speech contest.
Accompanying me was my husband Gene, my boss and three friends from Children’s Hospital, and several Toastmistress members from my region. Everyone had a wonderful time. Except me. I was a quivering, shivering, dithering nervous wreck.
When I was very young, I wasn’t at all fearful of speaking in public and, actually, I did it a lot. But that was well before I got old enough to recognize the fearful danger of making an ass of myself.
When I first joined Toastmistress, the only way I could cope was to attempt to use humor. That way I could always entertain the hope that maybe the audience was laughing WITH me instead of AT me. Whatever it took, I was grimly determined to get up and address an assemblage without shaking like a leaf or wetting my pants in public.
At first, competing at the lower levels of the competition, it wasn’t too bad. In fact, on occasion, I was starting to gain some, yes, confidence.
In Toastmistress speech contests, the winner at the club level would move on to Council, where several clubs compete. The Council winner would then move on to Region where councils from several states compete. By somehow winning at those levels on a fluke, the “free” trip to Sydney, Australia came lunging into my life. “Free” might not be quite the right word. Ever since I went on it, I’ve been pretty sure there’s no such thing as a free trip.
I can’t remember much about the trip getting to Australia, except that it took 17 hours from Seattle, and everybody in our party was having a great time. Almost everybody. I wasn’t. I was too busy not eating, not drinking, and not speaking except to all the saints in heaven who were subjected to my frenzied prayers.
Gene kept trying to help. “Calm down, Patty,” he’d say. “Sit back and enjoy it. We’re gonna love Australia.” He couldn’t have been more wrong.
I have a clear memory of the convention’s opening ceremonies. They were solemn and inspiring and I felt like an unwashed, unqualified, uninvited guest. What was I doing at an international speech contest? What had my fear gotten me into, except even more fear? Where could I hide?
It got worse as the first day wore on. While Gene and our fellow travelers were out enjoying the sights of Sydney, I was fighting for my miserable life in rounds of competition with quality speakers from twenty-seven countries. Those women were real speakers, unlike yours truly who was only there in her misguided attempt to learn to combat her sniveling fear of public speaking.
The early rounds were held in the hotel we were staying in. You could speak on any topic, but if you won the round, you couldn’t repeat the speech in any later round.
In my first round, I remember the speakers talked about world crises and subjects of true emotional appeal. As for me, I believe I was explaining all the things you can make out of crepe paper. On subject matter alone, I figured my speech was down the toilet. It was comforting to think that my terror was about to come to a merciful end.
Only it didn’t. The village idiot with her crepe paper skills was chosen to go on to the next round. And the next. And the next. I can’t remember what embarrassing topics I was using at each level but they’re better left forgotten. While others were speaking about genocide or world hunger, or racial intolerance, I was babbling on about stuff like what a flop I was in gym class.
I don’t remember much of anything during those preliminary rounds except that somehow I ended up among the 10 finalists who were to compete against each other two days later at the Sydney Opera House.
The theater we were in that evening seats over 2,000 people but the acoustics are so perfect that even if mics weren’t used, every word could have been heard. I needed that. Lots of the audience spoke English as a second language. How would they be able to understand that knothead American with her Midwestern twang who was about to tell them “Everything They Always Wanted To Know About Sox But Were Afraid To Ask.”
When my turn came to speak, three things happened that amazed me. The first was when I went to the lectern – shaking in my tracks. That mic you see in this photo gently adjusted itself to my height as I walked toward it. I wasn’t expecting that. It really astonished me. It seemed like magic. For a few seconds it took my mind off my terror and helped me compose myself. It wasn’t till it was all over that it occurred to me that an operator in a control booth had done it.
The second miracle was when I started to talk. The audience – English speaking or not – really got into it, and for the first time that week, I had fun. Of all things. For those six minutes, I temporarily lost my fear of public speaking. I did. That’s the last thing I was expecting.
After the whole convention was over, we spent a few more days in Australia and in New Zealand. It’s still hazy in my memory but I think that, at last, a good time was had by all, including me. Sightseeing is more enjoyable when one isn’t frozen with fear.
I wish I could tell you that the experience helped me conquer forever my fear of public speaking, but no such luck. I’ll always be Nervous Nellie at the lectern, but sometimes it’s bearable. Sometimes I even like it. But not often. It’s probably better than getting a mammogram.
On tomorrow’s blob, I might try to reconstruct the text from the Sox speech. Don’t tune in if you’re expecting for something intellectual.