I remember the first time I had to give a speech in front of a classroom. It was 1972 and I was 13 years old and in the 8th grade. And I was terrified.
It was supposed to be a persuasive speech and I was giving my speech on a “miracle pill” I had invented called “Weight-Off.” I was to persuade my fellow students to lose weight by taking one of the miracle pills. Silly, huh? Especially since none of my classmates were overweight in the least. I think as a prop, I used a bottle of silver cake beads that I found in my mother’s kitchen cabinet (that I labeled with my own handmade label).
I was so terrified I was literally shaking and my mouth was so dry, I could hardly speak. During the speech, my brain froze and my mind went totally blank. I remember standing there for what seemed like an eternity, not being able to speak a word. I just stood there like a bump on a log, staring at my classmates who began squirming in their seats. I felt embarrassed and humiliated. I couldn’t seem to regain my composure and started stumbling over my words when I did try to speak. I think I finally said something like, “I can’t do this” and went and sat down in my seat. I wanted to die. Remember I was 13.
Needless to say, I didn’t get a good grade on that speech.
Recently, I came across my old diary from 1972. I read an entry from that infamous day when I gave that speech, and it brought back all kinds of unpleasant memories of that experience.
When I was getting ready to start college, I remember the day I was looking at the course catalog at a list of required courses for an animal science/pre-vet major. And how my heart sank when I saw that Fundamentals of Speech was a required course. I remembered back to my 8th grade experience and I started dreading that speech class.
I happened to be in the University bookstore one day standing in a check-out line when I heard two students in front of me talking about having to take speech. One of them was talking about how she had dreaded it and how she ended up getting this really good teacher who made the class fun. The other student said, “Oh, I’ve heard such good things about her!” I wrote that teacher’s name down in the front of a notebook and I never forgot it. When it came time for me to register for that dreaded speech class the fall semester of my junior year, I made sure I signed up for that teacher.
That was almost 40 years ago and Dr. Pearl Gordon was an exceptional teacher. She understood having a fear of public speaking. She gave good advice before our speeches and helpful feedback after. In the class, I remember having to give a demonstrative, a persuasive, an informative, and an Impromptu speech. She advised when it came time to picking the topics of our speeches to go with something we knew about and loved. She told us to pick topics pertaining to our major if we so desired. So I did.
The most helpful advice I got during those days was to practice, practice, practice my speeches, preferably in front of an audience. And if I didn’t have an audience, then make one! Someone suggested piling up stuffed animals on a bed or couch and stand in front of them as if they were an audience. I was told to run through the speech over and over, practicing good eye contact, and appropriately adjusting the tone and volume of my voice until I developed confidence.
So that’s what I did and I remember feeling pretty silly the first time I rehearsed my speech in front of a group of stuffed animals who I aligned in rows on my bed. But I couldn’t believe how much it helped. Soon after that speech class, I remember having to write a paper for an agriculture class and give a presentation in the agriculture auditorium on that paper. My presentation was on the round purple USDA stamps that were applied to meats at inspection and whether that purple dye was safe if consumed. I remember how surprisingly calm I felt just prior to my presentation and I knew it was because I felt prepared. I had practiced and practiced my presentation. I remember the first person who came up to me after my speech and told me I was a really good public speaker and how taken aback I was to hear those words, words I never thought I would hear after the horrid speech experience in that 8th grade classroom.
Later on in veterinary school, I practiced again in front of those stuffed animals when I had to get up in Grand Rounds and present cases. I was nervous then, not necessarily because I was speaking in public, but because I was speaking in front of not only fellow students, but veterinarians who were specialists in their field, and some of whom were world-renowned. And who after my presentation would quiz me on my case and topic.
I made a good strong A in that speech class in college and I actually enjoyed the class. If anyone would have told me that a course called Fundamentals of Speech would end up being one of my favorite classes in college, I would have laughed in their face and thought it preposterous. I learned a lot in that class though that would last me a life time. I learned that preparation and practice makes all the difference. I learned good teachers make a difference. I had not adequately prepared or practiced for that 8th grade speech. And it was disastrous!
Do you have a fear of public speaking? How do you deal with it? Have you ever taken a speech class? Was it a good or bad experience for you?