Speak At Your Own Risk

TO WIT

June 16, 1991|By Dave Barry

Today's topic, in our series on Building Your Confidence, is How to Give a Speech.

If you are a human being or even a reasonably alert shrub, chances are that sooner or later a club or organization will ask you to give a speech. The United States is infested with clubs and organizations, constantly engaging in a variety of worthwhile group activities such as (1) eating lunch; (2) eating dinner; (3) eating breakfast; and of course (4) holding banquets. The result is that there is a constant demand for post-meal speakers, because otherwise all you'd hear would be the sounds of digestion.

A great deal of digestion is required, because all clubs and organizations obtain their food from the U.S. Catering & Cement Co., located on a former nuclear test site in Utah. Every chicken served by U.S. Catering & Cement has completed a toughening program developed by the U.S. Marine Corps, under which trainees go through an intensive program of running obstacle courses, doing push-ups, getting bad haircuts and being

VTC screamed at by grizzled veteran chickens wearing comical Smokey Bear hats. By the time they graduate, these chickens can deflect bullets with their breasts.

As the speaker, you are expected to eat this food without special tools. As an additional challenge, many clubs and organizations like to put you at a "head table" up on a stage, facing the audience, so everybody can watch you eat. One time I gave a speech to a convention of certified pension actuaries (motto: "Fun Dudes Having Fun"). There were 2,000 of them, filling an enormous hotel ballroom, and, apparently as a prank, they put me at a tiny table right in the center of the stage with one other person, named Bob.

It was the least-relaxed meal of my life. Bob and I handled our food the way bomb disposal squad members handle suspicious packages, because we were acutely aware that 4,000 actuarial eyeballs were monitoring our every move and commenting on our table manners ("Look! He dribbled on his chin!"). I was terrified that I'd have to go to the bathroom, because you cannot leave a table for two on a stage the size of Montana without being noticed. ("Where's he going?" "Probably to the bathroom!" "I bet he doesn't wash his hands!") I was also terrified that Bob would break under the strain and sprint off the stage, leaving me up there alone to confront the dessert ("Pie a la Samsonite").

But above all I was terrified by a knowledge that afflicts all post-meal speakers: I really didn't have anything to say. And what is more, I knew deep in my heart that the audience would rather have been taking a nap or playing golf or actuarializing some pensions. That is the No. 1 confidence-building rule of public speaking: Nobody really wants to hear your speech. This is why short speeches are so popular. Historians agree that the greatest banquet speech in history was the one delivered by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates moments after he drank some hemlock. "Gack," he said, falling face-first into his chicken. The other Greeks applauded like crazy. "Damn good speech!" they said. "Let's play some golf!"

You also remember that when you're giving a speech, there's always a chance that your mind will go totally blank and you'll freeze up as solid as a supermarket turkey. This happened to me about 10 minutes into my speech to the actuaries. The room fell silent, and the seconds were ticking by, and they were all staring at me, waiting for my next statement, and I was staring back at them with the confident, self-assured expression of a laboratory rat about to be grabbed by a researcher holding a major electrode, because I could think of nothing. Bob could have stabbed me with his dessert fork and I wouldn't have thought of "ouch."

The same thing could very well happen to you. If it does, remember this confidence-building fact: There is a strong chance that, in your frantic desperation, you will blurt out something stupendously embarrassing. "Speaking of pensions," you might say, "I frequently have sexual fantasies involving Wilma Flintstone and a wading pool filled with coleslaw."

This is why experts recommend that you practice your speech ahead of time in front of a sympathetic, understanding audience. I practice in front of my dogs, who always listen with alert, interested expressions, in case I'm telling them that they're going to get some leftover spaghetti, which they love. This confidence-building technique has enabled me to develop a natural yet authoritative speaking style (" . . . and in conclusion, let me just say that . . . No! Down! Bad actuaries!!").

So the "bottom line" in speech-making is to remember this: Just be relaxed and confident, and you'll do fine. Here, have some hemlock. *

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