Public speaking separates masters from amateurs

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 13, 2001

I’ve been getting a lot of calls from schools putting on career programs.

Tuesday, March 13, 2001

I’ve been getting a lot of calls from schools putting on career programs. It got me thinking back to my own high school days.

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When I was in school, I always looked at the interesting speakers they’d bring in for us, wondering if I’d someday be coming into a classroom and wowing the students with the exciting stories and funny anecdotes I’d surely have.

What I overlooked was my own unpolished speaking character, fidgety behavior and occasional tongue-tiedness – pretty much the three things that make a speaker, well, bad.

And those exciting stories and funny anecdotes? It turns out they seem funny or exciting in my head, but when I speak them, they don’t sound so funny or exciting. Something gets lost in the translation between my brain and my mouth.

Which brings me to Friday. New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva High School invited a diverse group of professionals in for an afternoon of career exploration. There were law enforcement people, paramedics, agriculture professionals, and of course the humanities/communications people – myself, Carrie Vincent of KAAL-TV news, and the distinguished Al Batt of Hartland. They grouped people from similar professions together and students rotated through the rooms for a series of sessions with the groups.

It’s a good idea, for sure. I was glad to participate. But it was easier said than done.

Here’s a recipe for stress: Take an inexperienced speaker and put him in front of 40 17-year-olds. Then, rotate two more groups of 40 17-year-olds into the room to hear the same presentation.

My first time around was the worst. I blurted out some of the stuff I had rehearsed before the presentation, but misplaced much of it in the nervous haze my brain had become. I ended up giving what amounted to a dry, incomplete spoken catalog of job descriptions.

I tried not to talk too fast but probably failed. I tried to make eye contact, but kept catching myself staring at the ground. I tried not to fidget.

I read someplace that public speaking is one of the top fears of Americans; it seems most of us would rather have a stroke than stand in front of a few dozen scrutinizing stares for ten minutes.

Then there are those among us for whom speaking seems to come naturally. Luckily for me, one of those people was there to save the day Friday.

Humorist and storyteller Al Batt spins yarns all over the country, so a room full of high schoolers was a piece of cake for him. When I finished my first speech, he took the crowd right into the palm of his hand.

The students who had been picking at their fingernails or staring at their desks while I stumbled through my speech were now engaged, every one of them, gazing up at Al, who peppered his story with jokes and ad libs while still managing to put across a good message.

He harped on the school cafeteria’s hamburger gravy. He joked that he still had detention hours on the books at NRHEG, and that he would be circulating a &uot;Free Al&uot; petition. He told a story about his nemesis Van Gogh, the one-eared squirrel who raids his bird feeders.

When he was done, the students applauded. So did I.

As the other two groups paraded in over the next 90 minutes, I decided my best strategy was to keep it short and sweet. I took a cue from Al and eased off the rambling catalog style, instead trying to mix in some more easygoing stories. It was a little better. Something to build on.

And I watched Al give the same talk two more times. It didn’t matter that I already heard the jokes. I laughed again.

They say that public speaking is something you can learn, something that you can master with practice. That’s probably true to a certain extent.

But it’s also clear that some people have a knack others will never have. Al probably practiced hard to get where he is, but he’s also got the knack.