“Ready?” my teacher asked. I swallowed a big jittery gulp.
Public speaking. I tend to avoid it like the plague.
Nerves are usually the culprit of my hesitance to get up in front of large crowds. And even if you give me the most clear-cut message to deliver, somehow when I see a group of people staring back at me, everything I say manages to come out all disjointed and confusing. By the end of the message, I’m usually not even sure what I’ve said.
It’s not pretty.
But, as a Creative Writing major the Arcadia curriculum requires you to take at least one course in public speaking, which is how I found myself standing up in front of the rest of my Speech Communications class, about to deliver my very first speech of the semester.
“Annnnd go.” My teacher nodded, indicating for me to start.
By some miracle, I began. In my speech, I talked about the three physical items I had selected to represent my past, my present, and my future. My items were thoughtful, my explanations clear, and my voice steady.
So far so good, I thought. Maybe this whole public speaking thing wasn’t so bad after all! At least, my words were coming out coherently. For the first time, I could feel myself start to relax in front of a crowd.
But then I heard someone in the back cough.
I looked up suddenly—and that’s when it hit me—I had been staring at my feet for the entire speech! No wonder my little stint with public speaking had seemed so easy; I hadn’t made eye contact with the crowd once!
I looked back down at my shoes. Now what was I supposed to do? It was too late to go on staring at the floor; they had already seen me look up. Then it dawned on me that maybe the cough had come from one of my classmates trying to get me to look at my audience. We were being graded partially on eye contact, after all. Maybe someone out there had my back. That was comforting. Taking a brave breath in, I raised my eyes to meet them.
The end of my speech was great on paper; I had a terribly corny pun built in that was sure to get a laugh. But could I deliver it with everyone staring at me like this? Now that I could see them looking, I felt my face turn a pasty pale white. I gripped the rim of the table to stop my hands from shaking. Then I spoke.
The punch line hit and I was relieved to see the entire back row burst out laughing. I smiled, exhaling a long breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in.
As I returned to my seat, I caught the eyes of the back row yet again, this time with a steady gaze. Despite my less-than-ideal delivery, I was proud of one thing I had done up there. For the first time in my life I had realized that an audience isn’t something to fear. Sometimes those rows are filled with people that really could be your friends.