10 May 2006

Caught in the headlights

This morning I was the featured speaker at a local service club meeting.

You’ve probably been to one of these, or perhaps you’re even a member of such a club. They include Soroptomist, Rotary International, and Kiwanis, to name just a few.

I am not good at public speaking. I’ve thought about joining Toastmasters, but the idea of speaking in front of groups, even smallish groups as friendly and encouraging as Toastmasters, just makes my toes curl.

But I did it. After spending the evening writing up notes to speak from – the speech was about the newspaper I edit and its role in the community -- I was up at 4:30 this morning to make it on time. They meet up at 7 a.m., which is close to inhuman, as far as I’m concerned. I managed to gulp down a couple of cups of coffee – one of them on the drive down the mountain in amazingly heavy traffic, given the hour – and showed up at the appointed place.

Except no one was there.

I could see, with my face pressed against the window of the meeting room, that it was in the midst of being remodeled. But was there anything posted anywhere regarding the change in venue? Nope.

Such a pretty, sunny, cool morning. With wisteria scenting the air, a robin singing his little head off nearby, I almost decided to blow the whole thing off. After all, I had no idea where the group would meet, if not here.

But that would be ... unacceptable.

So I zoomed to my office, found the name and phone number of the man who’d invited me to speak, and discovered that it was his office number. Of course, he wasn’t AT his office. He was at the meeting, no doubt wondering with some consternation where I was.

I ended up calling an acquaintance I knew belonged to this particular club, and wonder of wonders, she had her cell phone with her. Soon I was back on the road again, and a few minutes later, walked into the meeting 20 minutes late, only puffing a little. I found the man who’d invited me – he was greatly relieved and most apologetic about forgetting to tell me they’d moved. There were jokes about how, being a good reporter, I managed to find their secret meeting place.

Most of the members had already gotten their breakfasts and coffee from the buffet. I breezed on past, saying hellos and good mornings, and sat down near the front. If I was going to trip over my own feet on the way to the podium, I figured, I’d do it CLOSE to the podium so at least the remainder of the journey would be short.

I haven’t been asked to do a lot of public speaking in my lifetime – something I’m deeply grateful for. I’m pretty decent at expressing myself in writing, but like a lot of people, being in the spotlight tends to tie my tongue in knots and render my brain smooth as an egg. When I was in the Air Force all those years ago, and was instructing intercept technicians, I learned to get up in front of the class to teach, and after a while, do it without feeling like a total and complete idiot. But that was a long, long time ago.

I had a few stints later as a public affairs person for the Army in which I had to get up in front of groups and talk. But those were blessedly rare.

And this audience today was a group of businesspeople, all of them freshly showered and cologned, dressed in power suits and ties, matching skirts and shoes or alligator shirts and khakis. They were laughing and talking among themselves, but I was an interloper. The press. The media. It was a roomful of Republicans – this community is quite conservative – and I was the sole capital L liberal in the room.

I fiddled with my business cards, which I’d rubber-banded together so I wouldn’t have to fish them one by one out of my purse in case someone asked for one. I was proud of myself for remembering to bring them at all – normally, I manage to forget and end up writing the pertinent info on a napkin.

Just as I was taking a deep breath to make my stomach stop turning somersaults, I was called to the podium and introduced. Told to speak up, since there was no microphone. Oh, joy. I have a very soft speaking voice. Now I'd practically have to yell. To project.

Gulp. Showtime.

I talked, they listened, many of them with fixed, polite, stony smiles on their facees. I know the feeling: It’s early, you’ve got a full day of work ahead, and you have to start the day listening to some inept speaker talk about something you’re not interested in. So you sit there politely and hope they don't make you squirm.

I kept it short – about 10 minutes. Only lost my cool a couple of times – evidenced by a quavery voice – and I did get a few laughs here and there, telling the stories behind the stories they’d be reading in the paper before long. My stomach remained knotted, but with my notes in front of me, at least I didn’t pull one of those dreadful mind-blanks, that loaded, dead air where you’re trying to remember your own name as your audience waits, willing you with every fiber in their bodies to please find your place and get on with it before they start sweating, too.

And then it was over. I thanked them for being such a nice group of folks and sat down. Unlike the last time I spoke before a group (about two years ago), my sinuses didn’t immediately fill with rubber cement and make me start coughing – certainly a reaction to stress, since I’d been fine before I stood up. Of course, I remembered to take an allergy medication before I left the house this morning, too.

Live and learn.

A few more words and reminders from the group’s prez, and everyone was up and talking and laughing again while beating a quick but decorous retreat. passed out a few cards and headed back to the office to take on another day.

I have nothing but admiration for people who speak publicly all the time. I have NO idea how they get through it gracefully.


blue girl said...

Oooh! I feel your pain. I was a performer in a previous life -- a singer -- and I swear, I could sing the National Anthem at a Cleveland Indian's game easier than I can get up and speak to a smaller room full of people. The larger the crowd, the more anonymous they can become.

Anyway, I do have to speak to small groups sometimes for my job and here's a trick I learned that really helps.

When you first get up to speak, scan the audience for friendly eyes or any eyes that are looking right at you. Find a couple of people, actually. And then, as you are speaking, stare right into their eyes -- use them as an anchor.

I've found that it really helps.

Good for you! You did it! It's always a great feeling of accomplishment when you make it through.

Blue Wren said...

Thanks for your nice words and the tip, BG. Since I spoke, I've heard from several people, third hand, that I did a good job of it. It seems my audience liked my stories.
And I like being a storyteller, though I think I'll always prefer type to talk.
By the way -- I love peonies, too.