Public Speaking

A few weeks ago, I got a call from Bob P., the director of the Port of Tulsa (yes, Tulsa, Okla., has a thriving port). They were having a navigation conference, he said. I was getting ready to say “Sure, we’ll have someone there to cover it,” when he continued, “…and I wonder if you will come and be our luncheon speaker?”

Ha ha, of course not.

I immediately told him thanks-but-no-thanks. I’m no public speaker, and although I work for a magazine that covers the barge industry, I hate, hate, hate any hint that I’m an “expert” on it.

But Bob P. Is a very persuasive person, and by the end of our conversation I told him I’d give it some thought and get back to him.

The next day I got an e-mail from his assistant, with a registration form for the conference and an agenda — with my name listed as the “luncheon keynote speaker.” So I guess I had agreed after all.

Truth is, I’ve been attending meetings and conferences in this industry for almost 20 years now, and I’ve often wondered what it would be like to stand at the podium and give a talk. Well, now it looked like I was going to find out.

The topic he gave me was something along the lines of “summary of key port and waterway developments around the country.” Again, I’m no expert on this stuff — lately my duties have involved more editing  and page-layout than actual reporting. But it’s not like I don’t do any reporting at all, and I do write a long year-in-review piece every December; I figured I could draw from the 2010 review if needed.

For the next week or so I worked up a general outline of what I’d talk about. It was a great outline, nearly perfect. But it was all in my head. Unfortunately, actual words didn’t hit paper (virtual or otherwise) until, frankly, the day before I was to give the speech. I’m a master procrastinator, and I found plenty of other things to do rather than convert my outline into an actual speech.

It wasn’t until I was in the airport, waiting for my flight to Tulsa, that I actually started composing actual sentences that I would be saying. I’d never done much writing on my iPad, but after a few paragraphs I got the hang of it pretty well. I worked on it on the plane, in the hotel restaurant while I had lunch, basically everywhere I could find a few minutes. I also had a laptop along, so later that night in my hotel room I could really knock out the words.

My speech was going to be the final act of this two-day meeting, so I had the whole meeting to sit through before it was my time.

Did I mention that I’m no public speaker? Frankly, the idea of public speaking is terrifying to me. I can do passably well in a small group of people, but to stand at a podium and deliver a speech, it’s just not something I do. Some people are great at it — very comfortable behind a microphone, able to ad-lib and speak to a crowd of hundreds as if they’re siblings. I’m not one of those people. In fact, I’m not that much of  a talker anyway. If you and I are having a one-on-one conversation, chances are you’re doing most of the talking, and I’m doing most of the listening. Listening is one of my specialties, in fact.

And yes, I did do a stint as an elected official, 10 years ago. But with the exception of one terrifying night when we had a pre-election “debate,” that whole business didn’t really require much “public speaking” on my part. Sure, there were times when I’d have to speak, in public, but generally it was just a sentence or two at a time. Not a full-fledged “speech” like Bob P. was asking for.

But at least in Tulsa I’d have something in front of me to read, I told myself. And even though I hate watching a speech in which the speaker is obviously reading his prepared text, I knew that I’d have that crutch there in case I needed it.

I took every opportunity to  work on the speech during breaks in the conference.  I had to pretty much forgo the free margaritas at the Monday evening reception, knowing I had to go back to my hotel room and write. Once I got going with it, the writing went pretty easily — I did most of it from memory, without having to borrow from the reference materials I’d brought along with me. I did my best writing early on Tuesday morning, and by the time the meeting got back underway that morning, I’d printed out a decent draft of the speech in the hotel’s business center.

It turned out to be more than 2,700 words, about 14 pages in 14-point, double-spaced type. My panic assumed yet another color: was this thing way, way too long? Was I going to drone on for 45 minutes?  That would be a nightmare, not just for me, but for everybody in the audience. So during the breaks between talks in the morning session of the conference, I was looking over my draft, hastily marking places where I could make cuts.

The morning wore on. It was actually a very interesting conference, with good discussions of a number of important issues. I had my recorder going as a backup because I know my notes weren’t keeping up. Note-taking is always hard for me, and even more so when my stress over giving a speech was growing by the minute.

But as I through read my speech again, it looked pretty good. I was reasonably happy with what I’d come up with, despite the impromptu way I’d written it.

Finally, lunch time. Before my speech, there were inductions of four people into the Arkansas River Hall of Fame. The inductions began right away, while the waiters were still serving our salads, and then entrees. As it happened, the entrees for my table didn’t arrive until Bob P. was taking the podium to introduce me. I managed to grab just a couple of bites before I was called up to deliver my “keynote” address.

OK. Try to appear calm. I put my glasses on, but I couldn’t read my text; I took my glasses off. I began, not with a joke but with thank-yous  to Bob and everyone for a great conference. And I talked a bit about our magazine, a little unpaid advertisement for the “Riverman’s Bible.” Then, on to the meat of the speech. I explained that my son’s English teacher does something at the beginning of each class called the “Big Five” — a brief discussion of the five biggest or most interesting stories in the news that morning. I borrowed the idea, and said I’d talk about what I saw as the five biggest issues on the waterways.

But I soon realized that there’s a big difference between writing something that will be read on paper, and writing something that will be spoken aloud. A lot of my well-turned phrases that looked so cool on the page felt awkward and stilted as I tried to speak them. I tried my best to give the speech from my memory, but that didn’t make it any less wooden-sounding.

I guess actually practicing the thing might have been a good idea.

I pressed on. Item 1 of the Big Five went fine. Item 2, a little ad-libbing, departing from the text to throw in some asides and make the thing seem not so … read. I did skip a paragraph or two that I’d marked for deletion, but by Item 3 it dawned on me that I was actually ripping through this thing pretty quickly. Oh geez: when you print it double-spaced and 14-point type, it turns out there really aren’t that many words on the page. So as I was speaking, I had to mentally work through and ignore the deletions I’d made an hour or so earlier. Plus, I was reading this thing that, in parts at least, just didn’t sound right coming out of my mouth, although it seemed good on paper.

Deer in the headlights? This picture pretty much captures the terror I was feeling,

I muddled through, and somehow, made it through all five Big Things. (Let me tell you, the decision to structure it that way was the best decision I made. If nothing else, it allowed everybody — listener and speaker — to know that we were progressing through this thing and that it would eventually, thankfully, end.)

And finally, it did end. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have a good conclusion written for it. As I stood at that podium, looking at my last page, I would have given a year’s salary for a great quip that would tie it all together and leave everyone laughing and marveling at how clever I was and making plans to buy lifetime subscriptions to my magazine. But no such quip popped into my brain. I mumbled another round of thanks to the conference organizers (you can never go wrong by saying thank you), and then, because I had nothing else, more thanks. And then I hustled off the stage, precluding any possibility for questions from the audience.

I think the ordeal lasted about 20–25 minutes or so. That’s a guess; I don’t wear a watch, and anyway I had more important things to think about than timing myself. I did keep my recorder going, in case I really killed and ever wanted to go back and listen, but I didn’t and I don’t. But I did, at least make it through to the end, still breathing.

The audience applauded politely and I made it back to my table to grab a few bites of what was left of my lunch. The others at my table were equally polite and nice to me, but I knew the speech wasn’t what it could have been. Two things definitely would have helped: a practice run-through or two, and perhaps some graphics on the screen behind me.

If I ever get the chance again, I’ll know better.

(Photos courtesy of Jeff Yowell, Tulsa Port of Catoosa)


3 thoughts on “Public Speaking

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