Summer vacation quickly came to a close. It was back to classes once again, only this time my schedule wasn’t filled with science courses.
I hiked up the small mountain that leads to Murphy Hall, a newly-minted print communications major. It was my first class of the semester, “Speech Communications.” A group of about 14, we sat around a small room, hardly big enough for 10 people. Its awkward shape, lime green walls, and lack of windows were enough to make anyone uncomfortable—especially someone who despised public speaking (i.e., me). Luckily, all following classes were held on the ground floor of Landman Library.
I had met the instructor, Chris Mullin, before (she’s my advisor), but this was my first experience with her as a professor. She struck me as a sweet woman, without a mean bone in her body. Her presence greatly reduced my angst, and that of many other students, about speaking in front of a group.
The class was much different than biology. There was no memorization of the circulatory system or of which organism belonged to which family. It was a whole new ball game, but I was still playing the old one. I had a bit of difficulty adjusting to the new expectations—grading was different, and tests were no longer endless series of Scantron bubbles—but Chris made the change a bit smoother.
My first speech was painful, to say the least. My sweaty palms made another appearance, this time coupled with stuttering and my beet-red face. To my classmates, my voice was nearly inaudible. The voice in my head, however, screamed: “You’re an idiot! Why do you sound so awkward? This is not how we planned it!”
I repeated the same mistakes in the following speech—and the one after that, as well. Embarrassment was almost always present, and I dreaded standing at that podium anticipating my next mistake.
Eventually, I became much better at speaking in front of the group, as did the rest of the class, and by the end, we all sounded skilled and presented ourselves more confidently. We have Chris to thank for our growth, of course.
Near the end of the semester, Chris held individual conferences with students to help us strengthen our final speeches. “Bring a rough outline of your speech, and we will discuss it at the meeting,” she said.
The day of my meeting, I walked down the stairs to the ground floor of the library with a piece of loose leaf with a few words written on it. My outline. I knew Chris wouldn’t take points off for my lack of preparation, but I thought there would be some disappointment, and that’s the worst kind of punishment from someone you respect. The conversation surprised me, though. “You have a lot of personality,” she said. “But I feel like you lose it when you speak in front of the class.”
I agreed completely, as she leaned back in her chair. “You and I have a very similar sense of humor, Matt,” she said, smiling. “You’re the only one who ever laughs at my bad jokes, and I’m really going to miss that in my future classes.”
I left that meeting with a smile on my face. On delivery day, I gave my best speech of the semester and felt as though I had overcome my fears of public speaking.
Photo by Tim Lewis