thoughts on public speaking

I love to write—a good thing considering I’ve devoted a large portion of my life and my time to it. I also love to read, and despite not having a commute and preferring tv watching before bed to reading, I still manage to read approximately one and a half books a week. So, yes, I love to write and I love to read. What I do not like, however, is reading what I write out loud to others. It’s true—I’m not a fan of public speaking unless it is someone else doing the speaking in public.

My first memory of speaking in public was my Bat Mitzvah on my thirteenth birthday. Not only did I have to read out loud —in Hebrew—I had to sing. In Hebrew. I clearly had no idea what I was in for when at the age of eight, I agreed to go to Hebrew school for the next five years in exchange for my mom throwing me a big birthday party otherwise known as a Bat Mitzvah. My only memory of the actual ceremony was singing Adon Olam with my sisters (18 and 20) as the three of us giggled uncontrollably, much to my mother’s chagrin. I also remember the rabbi forgetting to let me read the speech I (meaning my sister) had written for me. I don’t recall being too disappointed about it. The sooner we left the temple, the sooner we could eat pigs in a blanket. (Kosher pigs, of course.)

My second memory—the one that has haunted me ever since—was the oral report I had to do in Mr. Sherman’s social studies class in eighth or ninth grade. Kind of pathetic that I can’t remember which grade and makes me question whether I deserve the nickname my college housemates bestowed onto me for my amazing memory—Steel Trap. I spent hours preparing for this report, but my nerves were so shaky, I read it as if I was a contestant in a speed reading competition. When I was finished, the first question asked by a fellow student: “Can you repeat that?” All of my classmates, along with Mr. Sherman (shame on him) laughed while I ran out of the classroom in tears.

In order to graduate high school with a Regents diploma, I was required to take, complete, and pass a semester of public speaking, which meant I had to get up in front of the entire class at least five or six times to present an oral report on various subjects including my biggest peeve (people who make too much noise when they eat) and a demonstration (carving a pumpkin). The class wasn’t until my senior year, but I started fretting in tenth grade. My writing skills (and those of my sister who actually wrote my amazing pet peeve report) garnered me an A-. Why not an A, you ask? Because I spoke too quickly and lacked showmanship.

I’ve received this criticism many more times throughout the last couple of decades, specifically when I’ve written speeches/toasts for various weddings. The speeches are always impressive—I’m a writer; it’s what I do. But since I’m so concerned with getting it over with, I don’t give the toast as much as read it as fast as humanly possible. I don’t know why I don’t like speaking in public. I don’t have an aversion to being the center of attention sometimes, but I suppose I prefer it in a less formal way, like when there are no expectations of me. When I have twenty plus pairs of eyes on me, eager to hear what I have to say, and (at least in my mind) judging how I say it, it freaks me out. I remember when my boss asked me to say a few words about my experience during a client pitch, I rehearsed those seven lines over and over and over again. The pitch was via a video call and the clients could barely see my face, but did that ease my nerves? Of course not. My heart was beating triple time throughout the entire thing. The “thing” that lasted all of one minute.

Since becoming a published author, offers to speak in public come more frequently and while I’m not required to give them in order to graduate high school, the more exposure I can gain for me and my books, the better. And so I always say “yes” when an opportunity arises. Earlier this year, I did my first reading at Barnes & Noble. I was equal parts stoked for a dream come true and horrified at reading an excerpt of my latest book out loud. On the advice of a few other authors, I marked up the portion of the manuscript I was reading with notes when to look up, when to emphasize, when to pause. It really worked. I did well, but I didn’t morph into a fearless speaker by a long shot.

I spoke at a writer’s group through Meetup last weekend about my writing experience and my journey to getting published. I also gave the pros and cons of publishing with a small press based on my experience. I was seriously nervous, but I prepared by writing a speech and then transferring the major points onto index cards so that I would be able to speak more openly rather than read from a script. I rehearsed alone in my apartment numerous times. It was an informal gathering and I welcomed interruptions for questions by those in attendance. It went well and, in fact, I had a great time. I enjoy giving advice/guidance to writers aspiring to be published. I went to bed that night with a sense of pride that I stepped outside of my comfort zone as well as relief it was over. And then I woke up the next morning to an email from the president of Federal Toastmasters asking if I’d be willing to speak at one of their meetings—she wanted me to present on my experience with hybrid publishing. With a wave of dread, I knew immediately I was going to say yes. How could I say no? I’m not comfortable making decisions based on fear and know I would regret it if I did.

And so, on October 14th, I will be one of three authors headlining the Federal Toastmasters “Author Speak.” Will I knock them dead with my showmanship? Probably not. But I’m getting there.

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Comments

  1. You have excellent advice. My English Professor once gave me incredible advice right before I read a poem to a large audience: speak slowly…slower than what sounds like normal cadence. She was correct. Speaking slowly does not come naturally to me, but I try to do so.

    Later, in graduate school, the Professor, early on in the course, made a video recording of each student’s presentation…then the students watched themselves.

    I cannot tell you how much I learned from watching my video. For example, I said the word “and” often for no reason. Also, I seemed to rock back and forth at the podium. I had no idea I was doing these things until I watched myself on video.

    Over the years, I have tried to be aware of my audience: volume? cadence? my accent? Is audience taking notes, if so slow down? slow down to provide mailing address, because person is writing it down, match other person’s pace in conversation, etc.

    I am still learning, but I try to find a way to connect with an audience when I speak…that connection somewhat compensates for the fact that I have yet mastered public speaking.

    • That’s all excellent advice as well. I probably say “um” too many times – I’d be terrified to watch myself, but I imagine it would either be very helpful or traumatize me to the point that I’d never want to speak again 😦

    • Your writing about speaking is as humorous as your books. As others have mentioned, public speaking is something many people fear. I still do.

      The last time I attempted it was in college for a class required for a teacher’s degree. I had to leave the room about midway through. I seriously started to faint. I’ve been told the best way to conquer fear is to do that thing you fear multiple times. Like flying. I’m not fond of that either and thankfully I can’t afford to fly once let alone multiple times to conquer that fear.

      I think being an introvert and highly sensitive (A college professor told me I’m too sensitive to be on this earth. Not that helpful.) is at times a curse. Curses foiled again and all that.

      Your books are amazing so much like the author herself.

      • I’ve been told I’m too sensitive as well! A wise man told me that being sensitive is a wonderful thing but you need to be careful about who you allow to see that side of you because not everyone is worthy and some will take advantage.

        Anyway, I agree that the best way to conquer the fear is to keep doing it. I’ll let you know if it works in this case :).

        And thank you so much for the kind closing sentence. That meant a lot.

      • I’m not sure one can just turn off sensitivity. It’s a part of who one is. It’s not learned because if it was, I’d definitely unlearn it. It causes major grief over something silly like someone not liking a post of Facebook — meaning being reamed over something in a public forum.

  2. Reblogged this on Susieqlaw's Blog and commented:
    I love this blog written by @MeredithSchorr on public speaking.

  3. Hi Meredith! You are so not alone! This is one of people’s greatest fears and those who can conquer it tend to be more successful. Having taught public speaking for many years, the biggest thing that seems to help people is the realization that all you have to do is be yourself! People love you, Meredith – just be you! Think of speakers like Oprah and Liz Gilbert – they keep it real and speak from the heart, realizing that a speech is never perfect (perfectionism is also important to let go of). Let your natural personality shine through and don’t read off a paper and you’ll be great!!!

  4. PS: Congrats on all these great speaking invitations!!!

  5. The first thing that came to my mind was The Brady Bunch.

    From the Internet: “There was one episode, called the Driver’s Seat, where Jan was really nervous to talk in front of the whole school. Well….one morning Mike Brady had some sound advice for Jan…take a look and see. [Video shown, but “In the subplot, Jan is preparing for a crucial debate on her debate team. Nervous about presenting in front of people, Mike gives her the advice to picture them in their underwear.”]

    “Moral of the story – We all get nervous. In fact it has been said that many people in the audience are more nervous for the speaker than the speaker himself! You have to remember that the audience is made up of people – just people – and it doesn’t really matter what they think. All that matters is that you believe in your topic and yourself.

    Take that nervous energy and turn it into positive energy; use it to deliver an engaging, fun and inspiring performance. And if all else fails, picture them in their underwear and have a good laugh!”

    Maybe this will help?

  6. Hi Meredith! I’ve started to read Blogger Girl–a friend of mine suggested to check it out. I’m very impressed with what I’ve read so far. As a guy, this is not exactly what I would normally pick up–far from it, but I know good work when I see it.

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