Public speaking? No grade is high enough for that assignment

By Lori Clinch

There are many ways to prepare oneself for public speaking. Some folks like to do relaxation techniques, focus their mental energy and then center themselves before appearing before their audience.

I, for one, like to begin any public speaking situation by simply passing out. I normally do this within five minutes of making the commitment and then I allow the tension to build up, minute by minute, until the horrific moment when I have to take the stage finally arrives.

Those who know me will tell you I am not exactly the shy and quiet type. In fact, I love being the center of attention. I adore talking at social gatherings and have no problem walking into a crowded room and calling out, “Hello everyone!”

Yet, put me in front of an assemblage, tell me I have to speak and suddenly I tremble in fear as though I am about to be condemned to the gallows.

I first realized I had this problem in my ninth grade speech class. I started dreading my speech within a nano-second of hearing the assignment. Perhaps it would have been better if I had been one of the first to take the dreadful stage. But oh no, I had weeks to think about it.

Since I loved to write and was assigned to fill a full five minutes, I wrote a lengthy discourse. I practiced it, memorized it and although I was sure my hands would shake and my voice would crack, I spent long moments convincing myself I could get through it.

On the morning of that fateful day, I walked slowly to the front of the class of my ninth grade peers. Once I reached the podium, I held on to it for dear life in hopes of masking the fact I was trembling, my knees were buckling and my heart was racing.

I did not speak slowly and purposefully as the teacher had instructed. I did not engage the audience, make eye contact or pause for effect. No sir, instead I raced through the speech, and as I concluded it, I looked at the clock and realized I had only filled 30 seconds of my five minutes.

Having no desire to redeem myself, I purposefully walked back to my seat and glanced at the teacher with a look that said, “I’ll happily take a ‘D’ for a grade!”

Several decades have passed since that fateful day and it has not gotten any better. When I first began writing my column, I had many requests to speak at gatherings.

I started dreading those talks the second I agreed to them. Some talks turned out OK. The Red Hatters accepted me with open arms, church groups were always kind and I drew a round of applause as I concluded my speech at a ladies’ luncheon.

But it did not always go well. The talk I did at a coffee shop was a bust when I could not talk over the blenders. I thought I was doing well at the senior center dinner until one man loudly asked another to pass the salt and it quickly led to a loud conversation about the weather.

After I tripped over a cane and darn near knocked a sweet little woman out of her wheelchair at a retirement home, I definitely knew it was a sign from the heavens that I should end my public speaking career before I ruined my health and really hurt somebody.

You really have to admire the folks who can entertain large audiences, take the good with the bad and pull it off with nary a panic attack.

Still, these days I respond to each and every public speaking request with a very kind and gracious, “Oh, heck no!”

In fact, I recently turned down our Catholic school superintendent’s request to speak to his Rotary group at 6:30 a.m. He did his best to persuade me, I’ll give him that. He even used his teacher skills and told me it would be a good experience and one I could grow from.

Being an experienced woman, I am no push-over and I promptly informed him that quite frankly, I would rather take the “D.”

Lori Clinch is the mother of four sons and the author of the book “Are We There Yet?” You can reach her by sending an email to loriclinch2010@gmail.com.