Musings & Threads. The Secret Sauce.
The Secret Sauce.
How to Achieve Public Speaking Excellence.
I am a good public speaker. People ask me how I can be so comfortable speaking in public, and I tell them that it is simple. I have embarrassed myself so many times, that I am fearless. Here are some of my public speaking lowlights.
Most of my humiliations came during my years as a 4H’er. 4H offered competitions to help children develop public speaking skills; public speaking, Demonstration Day (I’ll explain later) and livestock competitions. The 4H public speaking competition required us to walk up onto a stage and give a 5-minute talk to an audience consisting of beleaguered families and 3 judges. My first venture into public speaking was a fiasco. I tripped going up the stairs and my 3”x 5” notecards scattered all over the stage. This the day that I learned to number my notecards, since that talk consisted of my presenting notes from 3x5 cards in random order…I finished dead last.
Our poor mother was a very kind and patient soul, so she signed all of us up for Demonstration Day. For Demonstration Day you are to demonstrate to an audience how to make something…and since we were all farm girls, we demonstrated how to cook or clean something. My mother, recognizing our limited talents, suggested that we make juices. I chose a fruit punch and my mother purchased a pitcher that would fit the juices in the punch exactly. I was to demonstrate how to combine different juices into this virtually undrinkable solution. Part of my demonstration was to show how to measure liquids, but in my nervousness, I forgot to measure the grape juice and poured the entire contents (instead of ½ cup) into the pitcher. The pitcher began to overflow, but since I knew that the juice was supposed to fit, I continued to pour the grape juice into the pitcher despite the fact that most of grape juice was now spilling from the pitcher to the table to the floor. A resourceful woman grabbed a towel to mop it up, but I was not to be deterred, so I continued pouring until the last drop of grape juice was on the table, and floor. I finished last.
My sister, in a separate demonstration that same day, chose lemonade. After squeezing all the lemons, she knocked over the cup of lemon juice and it, too, poured onto the table and floor. Her reaction was different from mine, she just stood and cried. She finished last. My other sister managed to get 2nd place out of 3 competitors. Needless to say, there was little reflected glory for my mother, who was nonplussed and told us that we would do better next time.
Not so. The next year, recognizing that cooking may not be my skill, I decided to demonstrate how to train a dog, my German Shepherd, Gretchen. We started well, she sat right away, but then she lost interest in the other commands, so she remained seated despite my instructions to heel, lie down, etc.…I finished last.
The next year I went back to cooking and gradually got better with such subjects as “Fun with Refrigerator Biscuits,” “How to Make a Fruit Salad,” “No Bake Cookies,” and other notable topics. I eventually started to win. This culminated with my County win of “You and Your Dog,” where I showed how to take care of a dog… Gretchen’s choice to remain seated, this time, worked in my favor.
I went on to livestock competitions, where I took my cow, Valentine (guess what mark was on her forehead?), to a county fair to judge the fairest Holstein (a black and white cow) in the land. First, let me give you a picture of what I looked like. I was 8 years old, very scrawny and skinny. For the competition, I was dressed in a white cotton button-down shirt that had a way of getting untucked every time I moved. It was finished with a Kelly-green bow tie and a white accordion pleated skirt. The skirt was too big, so I had pinned the waistband with a safety pin, making it hang sideways. One side of the skirt was below my knobby knees the other side was above. My chin length hair was braided with green ribbons. Calling it braids was a little generous because the braids were less than 2 inches long and most of the fine blonde hairs were fleeing its constraints. My bangs were in the mid-forehead style, and my skinny legs were completed with white bobby socks and saddle shoes. I wore a big “Stevie Wonder” grin to complete the look. Of course, by the time the competition had begun my white shirt and skirt were no longer stain free, as I had managed to sit in manure (yes, good question, how can one miss that?) and wiped my hands on my shirt. But I was ready, ready to win. I put the halter on Valentine and proceeded to parade in a circle with the other cows (who I can assure you, were not as pretty as Valentine). As we were walking, the cow in front of Valentine took a dump on Valentine’s nose, I didn’t know if I was allowed to wipe it off with my shirt, so I tried to pretend that my cow did not have shit on her nose. Turns out that Valentine did NOT like having shit on her nose and started to buck, whereupon the judge made me leave the ring in shame. I finished next to last, the cow that shit on her nose was last.
There are other stories, but you get the gist, I found that I survived all of these humiliations, which is why I now have no fear…I mean having a cow shit on your cow’s nose…can’t get much worse than that.
I have even received a standing ovation for a High School commencement speech. I was President of the Board of Education; and Board Presidents are expected to speak on several occasions, including High School graduation. On this particular graduation day, it was oppressively hot and humid. We were in an unairconditioned, breezeless, 100-degree auditorium. The students, parents, families, Board of Education members, distinguished guests and teachers were soaked with sweat. Our black polyester gowns served to keep the heat inside making it even more unbearable. Even the flowers and balloons brought by proud parents had wilted. So, it was my turn to speak, my turn to rouse this next generation who had already heard too many speeches and suffered through processions and songs. I surveyed my audience and I began “On behalf of the Board of Education, I will NOT give a speech.” The crowd went wild.
I have given many speeches over the years, for events, for business, teaching, but this was the most applause that I have ever received. Kind of makes all of the humiliations worth it, doesn’t it?