By Michael Willard
I’m the quiet type. When recounting a non-stop reel of life’s adventures and touching on nostalgic career plateaus as if they were Greyhound bus stops, I’m rather subdued.
When it comes to public speaking, I blossomed late, though I certainly worked with several politicians who were oratorical masters, one of whom could entice laughter and tears during the same half-hour oration.
He also played the fiddle. Though I also play the guitar, I’m not nearly as musically inclined as my late boss, and so in my hands it would make a lousy prop, sort of like an anglers cap adorned with lures on a non-fisherman.
Some 35 years ago, it was announced I would be the director of the US Senate’s Democratic Leadership office. I was so nervous before speaking, I frantically clapped for myself in a room full of staff.
I got over it, mainly because there had been an embarrassing episode a few years earlier. I was an apprentice speechifier, learning slowly.
At the earlier time, I was bureau chief of UPI’s Kentucky operations, and far off leadership in New York asked me to introduced the famed UPI correspondent Helen Thomas at the University of Kentucky.
She was a superstar covering the White House for the wire service, and I the lowly line bureau guy, one of the youngest to head up a state news report for the then venerable organization.
Helen had been chosen as the keynote speaker for the inaugural chapter meeting of the national journalistic group Sigma Delta Chi (SDX). Since I was the state manager of UPI, it fell to me to introduce her.
I was not ready for prime time, or even a cameo. They say that the only fear worse than public speaking is the fear of death. It isn’t. Death is final, and the fear of speaking a momentary issue to overcome.
However, I didn’t realize this fact at the time. I was terrified. Death, while not preferable, was a viable option.
Throughout the afternoon I practice my 20 or so lines of introduction. I became more jittery by the hour. Once at the university, I found that the event was expanded to a larger auditorium to accommodate a much larger crowd.
At the reception before Helen’s speech, I was offered Kentucky bourbon. I felt one drink would calm me down. It didn’t. Surely a second or third would do the trick. They didn’t.
I was, though, still upright and mostly lucid as I approached the microphone.
When the time came to speak, my heart felt heavy as an anvil with a hammer pounding away. I grabbed it as securely as one would a rattlesnake poised to strike. My knuckles shined white. My tie seemed to tighten around my neck.
I thought the microphone was off. It wasn’t.
“How in the hell do you turn this damn thing on,” I mutter. My words echoed throughout the cavernous auditorium. There was widespread tittering.
When all finally became quiet, I opened with a squeaky “on behalf of Sigma.. …….” In my nervousness, I had forgotten the name of the group that was about to be introduced to the Grand Dame of my company.
Finally, I blurted, “Oh hell, on behalf of SDX.” Somehow, someway, I muddled through the remaining lines, and Helen went on to give a great speech, full of interesting and colorful stories from her life.
Even in my embarrassment, I was amazed at the way she held the crowd. I swore after that incident I would not only be able to speak before an audience, but that I would be a decent if not good storyteller.
It took a while, a long while. The mirror was often my audience. Sometimes the fish in the Kanawha River in West Virginia as I walked alone along its banks. Later, I bored my wife, Olga, with my rehearsals.
Today, Olga and I lead training courses on public speaking, among other of life’s diversions and vocations.
Public speaking is not necessarily a natural talent, unless you are a Dr. Martin Luther King or a Sir Winston Churchill. It, like most disciplines, is a learned craft. Being a good communicator is a must for senior executives.
You can look at this missive in one of two ways: It’s either a heart-warming tale of redemption and triumph; or, an unabashed advertisement for our book, “Conquer Your Fears: The Little Book on Public Speaking”.
It’s up to you. -