After a family dinner recently we watched a homemade videotape of my aunt and uncle's golden wedding celebration in Michigan. My tribute to Vern and Leona, with whom I had lived for a year at age 12, was included. I talked about 10 minutes at the banquet for several hundred people.
"You seem to do that so easily," one of my kids sighed, almost wistfully. "Some people are just natural speakers, I guess."
What? Me, a natural speaker? I had always thought of myself as the original Mr. Panic, the shakiest tongue not only in the West but in the entire universe. In years past I could recall clutching a lectern so hard that I practically got splinters in my hands.
How astonishing that my adult children should understand so little about this fearful part of me. While they are growing we put up the Parents-Are-Perfect sign; apparently I had never let them see the most stressful part of my working life.
But everybody is asked to make a speech sooner or later, and sometimes it's important not to refuse--especially if you want your career to move ahead. What my kids saw on this tape was a man who had some good points to make about marriage, and who wasn't afraid to reveal his affection for the two people on the dais in a way that touched the audience.
Maybe it was time to explain to my kids how I had finally learned to stand on a podium and let the real "me" talk to people.
Early in my career as a businessman in New York it became clear that I would have to speak to national conventions three or four times a year. The idea terrorized me. I was no golden tongue but a writer, requiring lots of private time to marshal my ideas. Writers should be seen and not heard, I believed.
I wrote out my maiden speech and attempted to memorize it. Rehearsing before my wife in the bedroom, she smiled slightly in an effort to relieve my hideous tension. I thought she was laughing at me, and we had a fight. Memorizing was clearly out.
For years I simply read my speeches at conventions. Although well-crafted, they simply didn't communicate well. Occasionally, pausing to tell an illustrative anecdote in my own words, I would see people in the audience perk up. But as soon as I resumed my text they relapsed back to their reveries.
One day in desperation I jumped into deep water and simply talked my speech from an outline. I was awkward and word-searching, but it didn't matter. They were with me. I learned that day that the audience is not your enemy. If you are sincere, if you clearly have something to say, if you reach out to each individual in the same tone you use in a one-on-one conversation, they will bear with you even when you falter occasionally.
You don't have to be eloquent, you don't have to be perfect: verbal communication doesn't demand that. You can't make a fool of yourself as long as you are honestly being you.
In time I discovered that it is effective to give an audience a rough road map of where you are going, such as, "I have just four points I want to make today"--and then number them as you go along.
I keep an outline in front of me, and if I freeze up simply go on to the next point. At the end, review your four points and close with a couple of upbeat sentences that you have memorized.
If possible, keep your presentation short and throw the meeting open to questions. Remember that you are the expert; you know more about your subject than almost anybody present. When you are responding to a question the tension of "making a speech" evaporates.
Yes, I have to admit that I still don't sleep well the night before a speech. I keep rehearsing phrases in my head. But when the time comes, there is a burst of adrenaline, a pleasurable "high" in pulling it off. If I can do it, I told my kids, so can you.