The day I learned that I would need to give three presentations in order to finish my core writing and communication classes was enough to make me consider dropping the year long series of three courses. There was little chance of a cure for my inability to handle public speaking fear that had been with me since grade school.
Yes, I said grade school. For as long as I can remember I never spoke in front of more than one or two people in any setting and in those instances it was to friends and family in the course of day to day activities. In grade school they used to make me recite poetry to get me to speak. All to no avail, I usually couldn't remember even being in front of the class. At this point in my life I would say it was a fear beyond the norm for a school age child but it was accepted and I was passed along through the grades and high school managing to avoid any further public speaking.
Then I found myself deciding to go to college. I loved writing, English Lit, and any form of expression I could find, except speaking. Yet, on my first attempt to earn a degree I quit the writing class I had enrolled in and let go of the idea of finishing college because it required presentations and I was not yet willing to put myself in that position. It was almost twenty years later when I went back to school and determined to get my bachelors degree. There was no getting around the core classes that were required by the University I was attending. This time I was determined.
I have to admit that the instructor probably had a great deal to do with overcoming the fear that had paralyzed me all these years because she was also considered one of the top female motivational speakers at that time. We spent the first term writing paper after paper. I wrote well and as she picked those she felt worth sharing mine were often among them. As she read papers from each assignment the class would comment and in return I would have to respond. I was opening up as the class went along and feeling more comfortable with having others read my work and give me feedback.
Then came the dreaded day. We drew topics for presentations. My face turned white. I felt sick to my stomach and was ready to withdraw from another class. This is no exaggeration. The instructor offered to let me give my presentation to her alone in order to fulfill the course requirements. I couldn't believe I was saying it but I refused the offer and picked my presentation date.
Though I can't remember the wording of the topic selection I remember the choice I made in my research and selection. I chose to speak about the assimilation of Native Americans. I did my homework and collected all types of data. It was a subject I felt strongly about but had no connection to. I am not Native American and have never experienced those prejudices that many of my friends had. Still, I was armed and ready. My speech was memorized and barring fainting I was going to present.
I did it but I was unhappy about it. I had spouted the words, gotten through each of the note cards that had been prepared but it was flat, without emotion. And here is the kicker; I said I wanted to do it again. Can you believe that? I barely remember standing there in front of a group of people I knew by now and still I was saying my first attempt was inadequate.
It was during the weekend when I watched a movie that I enjoy and heard the quote that I hadn't realized, until that moment, was the reason for my choice. I knew what was missing. The line came from a movie called LAST OF THE DOG SOLDIERS and the dialogue was along the lines, "what was done was inevitable but the way it was done was unconscionable," referring to the assimilation of Native Americans.
It was that simple line that made the difference. It was the difference between being passionate about a subject and relaying information. It gave meaning to the facts that I was presenting and changed them from data to thoughts worth considering. When I gave my speech the second time I did not change a word. I did not go over the time allotted and I added nothing except an introductory paragraph that gave me a connection to the subject matter. It told my audience why I felt the information was important. It helped them look beyond the obvious fact and consider how it related to people they come in contact with. It drew my conclusion back to the beginning and now I had come full circle with a beginning, middle, and end. It did what every speech should do. Tell the listener what you are going to talk about, talk about it, and then tell them what you talked about.
When I gave my presentation the second time I felt as if it now made sense to the listener, why I bothered to pick a subject and as a result not one person who heard it again recognized it as exactly the same speech. My emotional connection to the subject changed the way I presented all of the speech and the way my listeners received it. During the discussion following I was more open than I had ever been because I had put myself out in front of others not just relaying information but telling them how I felt about the information and what I hoped they would gain from it. The discussion enriched the experience for both me and those who listened.
Published by Sara Jane