My life as a public speaker

Surveys have consistently shown that the two everyday activities Americans fear most are death and public speaking. So imagine the stress facing the convicted murderer anticipating his imminent execution. Not only must he compose his thoughts into an organized and compelling presentation that will make a satisfactory set of Last Words, but he has to die too.

“I want to say I’m sorry to the victim’s friends and loved ones. I’m sorry to my own family for the heartache I have caused them. This PowerPoint slide shows some of the other things I’m sorry about. But most of all, I’m sorry that I’m about to receive a lethal injection. It’s not going to hurt, is it?”

This being Friday, it looks like I’m about to make it through another week without facing my ultimate demise. However, I did not manage to avoid public speaking.

As part of a project I’m heading up at work, I had to do what the corporate world refers to as a “stand-up”. This is not at all like the stand-up routine you might see a comedian perform on TV. For one thing, it’s not funny. Continuous process improvement rarely is. The main reason it’s called a “stand-up” is that my dozen or so coworkers get to stay seated, while I have to stay on my feet and speak coherently at the same time.

I don’t find this exercise especially easy, but I’m better at it now than I once was. I still remember the terror I faced delivering a simple oral report in elementary school. Probably the worst thing about it was that, since my name begins with a “W”, I was always one of the last in my class to speak. It was like being Yugoslavia after World War II, and watching as the Soviet Union subjugated all of Eastern Europe under the iron fist of communist enslavement, if the Soviets had extended their authoritarian hegemony in alphabetical order.

In junior high school, I foolishly volunteered to take a small part in a play titled “The Plot to Steal November.” The story centered on an effort to change the calendar in a way that would deprive us of our eleventh month, eliminating such American institutions as election day, Thanksgiving and my birthday (Nov. 6, for those of you who like to do their gift-shopping early).

I played a boy selling newspapers, and my part consisted of striding onto the stage, announcing “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Read about the plot to steal November,” and then crouching next to a group of my fellow actors as they read the story. More out of blind terror than any kind of creative choice, I decided to lean on a table instead. The teacher managing the stage direction had a fit, loudly whispering “squat, Davis, squat” throughout my entire 30-second performance, further damaging my confidence in front of audiences.

When I went off to college, I considered majoring in education until I realized that would eventually involve speaking to a room full of students. I opted instead to pursue a degree in history, and spent most of my time at university in a mode of public listening rather than public speaking. This meant attending Timothy Leary lectures and Stephen Stills concerts, both of which I only vaguely remember. Any oratory I did was limited to late-night, drug-fueled bull sessions with a handful of roommates and friends, where I frequently made the extemporaneous argument that wouldn’t it be cool if you could fly.

After my schooling was complete, I began a 30-year career in financial document analysis. I got good enough at my job that eventually, I was asked to train others. This started out easily enough as a one-on-one affair, but soon blossomed to include more and more students. When my company decided to outsource some of its operations overseas, I was asked if I’d be willing to train what ultimately seemed like half the subcontinent of India, and a similar percentage of the eastern Pacific. I wanted the free travel opportunity, so I figured I better get over any lingering stage fright pretty quickly.

One of my first large-scale sessions was in Manila. I carefully reviewed all my material the night before. I browsed the internet for tips on public speaking. I imagined the audience would all be wearing underwear, though this would ultimately backfire thanks to some particularly attractive Philippine women. I reminded myself they’d probably be more afraid of the graying American than I’d be afraid of them. I took handfuls of klonopin.

I thought the training went really well. After the first few minutes in front of a room full of people, I felt surprisingly at ease. I only needed to occasionally glance at my notes, I made lots of eye contact with various faces around the room, and I successfully avoided wetting myself. I waved my arms around a lot, which they seemed to like.

Arm waving can capture the attention of your audience

The only real stumble came with a lame attempt at humor. I was trying to make the point that it was important for them to know how to spell the names of certain key players in the financial services industry, and how one of our people had once mistakenly read some illegible handwriting as “Goldman Sucks” instead of “Goldman Sachs”. I thought this was pretty funny, but they didn’t get it at all. Of course, this was in 2006, before the worldwide financial crisis made even the most primitive tribesmen of New Guinea aware that Goldman Sachs sucked.

Now, it’s 2010, and I’m quite comfortable doing this much smaller session with my coworkers. I have a one-page script I wrote, but it was rewritten by my boss and, if I follow it too closely, I’m afraid I’ll say the “(adlib)” that she’s sprinkled throughout. I hit all the introductory points, then dive into a quick overview of the “big themes of the project: communication, efficiency and workflow”. I reference the handout they received earlier that morning in their email, which one person has actually read. We’re changing the way we do certain things, and I remind them that change isn’t always easy. That cliché, and the request for any questions anyone might have, are fortunately met with blank stares – just the response I was hoping for.

I wrap up the session with the announcement that I’m supplying a pizza lunch in a blatant attempt to bribe them into compliance, and suddenly everyone is loose and smiling.

“I hope the pizza will grease your creative juices, and that you’ll continue to offer suggestions for improvements,” I say, later regretting the metaphor when I got a look at my particular slice of Domino’s pepperoni.

Once everyone is busy chowing down, I have a chance to evaluate my performance, and I think I did pretty good. A friend who witnessed the presentation, who happens to be a member of the Toastmasters speakers club, said I used a few too many “uh’s” and “ah’s”, though I avoided the “so’s” that are the real sign you don’t know what you’re talking about. And he liked the arm waving.

I’m just glad no one tried to get me to squat.

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2 Responses to “My life as a public speaker”

  1. Voula ( Says:

    Squat, Davis, squat! LOL What a great visual.

    It definitely takes some practice to get comfortable with public speaking. I used to practice speeches at home using the microwave as a timer. And I use my hands so much when I speak it looks like I’m swatting a swarm of invisible flies…

  2. planetross Says:

    I used to be good at public speaking, but have slowly matured into someone who hates doing it. … or have just got older.

    note: sorry for my apparent absence from your blog.

    double note: everytime I put in eyedrops I think about you. … I don’t want to, but I do. hee hee!

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