Public Speaking – I’d Rather Die!

Public Speaking – I’d Rather Die!

by Lesley Sudders

Dramatic declaration, but true for many fearful souls.

The fear of speaking in public, according to surveys, outweighs the fear of flying, dogs, snakes – and yes, death. Writers may be called upon to speak to a group, whether it’s five or 500. This would be a good thing, indicating recognition and success.

Groucho public-speakingSome speakers just get up and deliver their message – enviable. But we’re not all Groucho. I’ve seen people so terrified when addressing a small group of coworkers, or reading a passage from an organization’s bylaws, that they cannot go on. Being swallowed by the floor would have been preferable.

Training, through Toastmasters and less formal means, may be a good investment in time. Attention to this training goes back to Egypt and Greece in antiquity. The Romans followed Greece’s example of speaking to persuade others about something. The oration included clarity of thought. So if called to speak, we’ll assume you know what it is you want to say, and as a writer you can say it well.

I can share a few things I’ve learned. No need to drop dead rather than face a podium.

  • If the microphone is too low or too high, switch it off before you crank it to the right height. That aak aak aak sound is annoying. (Then remember to switch it back on!)
  • Figure out something to do with your hands. If you stand behind a lectern, try to memorize your talk to avoid fussing with cards or papers. If there is no lectern, stand before a mirror to see what suits you. How many gestures, and what kind?
  • Don’t call your message a “speech” – the word carries baggage.
  • Remember that, in general, we are too self-critical. Most of us do better than we think.

I am grateful for experiences I had years ago, when I became the first president of a professional group’s local chapter. Membership included administrative and accounting staff in architectural firms. I conducted our meetings, but also spoke to groups of architects to invite them to send staff members to check us out. That persuasion thing.

I’m naturally shy, so practicing helped. Using drive time worked, once I learned to ignore questioning glances from strangers seeing me talk to myself.

Despite preparation, the unexpected occurred with regularity. One important talk was aimed at a large group of architects during the annual statewide meeting. I’d been told I could have five minutes, and I worked hard on writing the speech and timing my delivery.

As I was led up to the dais, the person in charge of the meeting said, “Oh, by the way, you only have two minutes.”

Yikes! The dais steps were wobbly, but I gained the platform without falling. A light shone from the back of the large ballroom directly into my eyes. My carefully memorized talk flew out of my head.

Well, I thought, BE ENTHUSIASTIC. So that’s what I shot for, while imagining when my two minutes were up.

I’ve never had the slightest idea what I actually said.

As I was leaving the dais, an older and respected architect from another city, the main speaker, stood to offer me a hand down the wobbly steps and thanked me, for something. I walked back to my table. An architect with a firm new in town had joined our group. I sat next to him, and he said he would have his staff get in touch with us.

The evening proceeded. The people in charge of the program – which included awards for good design – were disorganized. Much went wrong. The wrong slides (remember those?) popped up, and names were mispronounced. The audience was critical.

A light bulb in my brain flashed. I could have spoken for ten minutes, or whatever. Those hooks to drag people off the stage went out with Vaudeville. Maybe I should have stuck with my original script instead of being polite. On the other hand, my heightened nervousness might have enlivened my brief talk. In all, a good lesson.

The next morning, a number of architects approached me to ask for more information. And I was soon offered a terrific job at a new architectural firm whose principal had been seated beside me, and the firm became a generous supporter of our organization.

Since then, I’ve delivered eulogies, written or extemporaneous, and more cheerful talks. Now, working on elevator pitches is my challenge.

Lesley Sudders has published a mystery,
The Brodick Affair, Lesley Sudderswriting as Les Brierfield, and is at work on her next novel and several short stories. A Colorado native, she lives in Arizona with her husband and writing collaborator Eduardo Cervino (E.C. Brierfield). Follow her blog: Les Brierfield, Author. Lesley welcomes contact at

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2 Responses to Public Speaking – I’d Rather Die!

  1. Great blog! As a retired professor, I have had those feelings, but soldiered on anyway, often speaking to a class of hundreds, and as a consultant to large corporations’ executive committees. The “fight or flight” reflex was always there, creating butterflies in the tummy and palpitations in the heart. Now that I have a pacemaker implant, my heart beats at a steady 70 bpm, no matter what. (However, I don’t recommend anyone get one of those just to avoid stage fright!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I grew up in a debate classroom and did competition speaking throughout high school. One key idea that was drilled into us was that public speaking, like anything else, is a skill that can be practiced and honed. It’s not like singing – where you pretty much can-or-can’t. It’s more like learning to play a musical instrument. Sure, some people have more of a natural aptitude, but anyone who focuses long and hard enough can learn.


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