Did you take a public speaking class in high school? I signed up for the speech class during my junior year. If you asked any of my classmates, they’d tell you I was one of the most withdrawn, shy kids they ever met. It seemed like a very good idea at the time was to take the speech class to help overcome this dibilitating, painful shyness.
Attending that speech class, both semesters, was the most difficult course I had ever chosen by my own initiative. Every week, each of us was required to present a speech from the wooden lecturn at the front of the classroom. I still recall the memories of dreading my turns in front of the class. I didn’t just have “butterflies”, I had vultures lurking inside. On speech days, I wore patterned shirts so as to disguise the torrents of sweat pouring from my armpits.
One of the best practical lessons was that of learning deep breathing. To breathe from the diaphragm, steadied my shaky voice and deepened its tone. Oddly enough, a few deep breaths, taken immediately prior to speaking, caused an emotionally calming effect.
Perhaps the best part of speech class was the feeling of comaraderie among most of the students. Many of us were there to improve ourselves or to develop self-confidence. When I saw the biggest, bad-ass football player reduced to a quivering mess, I knew all of us were on a level playing field. It was probably the first time I sincerely felt sorry for the school bully.
The aspect of speech class that has had the greatest long-term influence on my life was that we were required to give talks on topics about which we felt strongly. I learned more things about my classmates, and they about me, than in prior years.
The science nerds sometimes talked about “non-sciency” aspects of their lives. Once in awhile the jocks spoke about concerns other than sports. The girls often expressed their dreams of becoming professionals or artists.
Because our speech class took place in the mid-1960s there were a lot of anti-Vietnam war speeches and plenty of kids talking up civil rights for women and minorities. This was an exciting time to be a student in America and I didn’t want to miss out on any of it. Even though I was not ready to come out of the closet yet, those speeches I gave about civil rights seemed like my best ones. I could give those without consciously thinking about breathing exercises or worrying about sweaty armpits. I was in my element.
I wish I could truthfully say that I lost my fear of public speaking at the conclusion of high school speech class. I didn’t. I still get sweaty palms and heart palpitations at the thought of speaking in front of a gathering of people.
Even when I presented the eulogy for a friend at the local Anglican church, I felt uneasy. However, I knew it was important to speak out about the things my friend stood for, deep in his heart. I don’t think I could have forgiven myself if I had passed the opportunity by.
Ironically, even though the thought of standing in front of a group of people scares the wits out of me, I honestly love to sit in a studio and talk to the public in front of a mic. Because I no longer do radio, writing this blog, is the next best thing.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the “Dean of Public Speaking”, Dale Carnegie. “The first sign of greatness is when a man does not attempt to look and act great. Before you call yourself a man at all, Kipling assures us, you must ‘not look too good, nor talk too wise.’ “