Public speaking: Facing the abyss

Public speaking

I envy people who can stand up in front of a small or large group of people and just talk. In my Kansas grade school for the Christmas play one year I was dressed like a toy soldier with short black pants, white socks and oversized cotton gloves. At the end of the performance my assignment was to face the audience and say, “Cookies and punch will be served after the play.” Not a speaking role, just more of a public service announcement. During the play, I just had to march around with a wooden rifle.

One of the older boys, Tim, who liked to tease, kept telling me my socks were showing. I kept saying they are supposed to. I would walk away and inch my pants down a little with each comment. For the life of me I could not memorize the line, so the music teacher gave me a half sheet of paper with the short but informative sentence. I didn’t know how to fold it, so I just wadded it up with my big gloves.

When the time came, I made my best little military “right face” and just stared into the dark, shadowy audience (now known as the abyss). My eyes were wide open with fear, yet nearly closed from squinting due to the stage lights. My face hurt. The silence was deafening. For a second I thought everyone left, until I heard my older sister Paula giggle a very distinct “oh brother” giggle.

It felt like it took ten minutes for me to undo the paper wad with my now-forgotten line. I held the note to block the view of the awkwardly silent audience and the line came out clear and perfect. I remember grinning a little with relief, but forgot what the next step was. Suddenly I remembered my socks and my uniform. As I simply pulled up my pants at least three inches, the audience gave a mild to moderate chuckle, then a full-on laugh, and that was all I needed!

There is really no advice anyone can give to someone performing this potentially life-changing task other than good luck. After a while I believe we all discover what we need to speak. Today, as the owner of New Concept Auto Service in Overland Park, I have experience speaking in front of business and community groups, and even cameras. I have learned how to tell a story that has a point and is at least informative. And if I can say something a little clever or make a little gesture, and get at the very least a smile from one person, then the fear melts away and it’s all I need.

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