Behind the Public Speaker

Last week, I participated as a speaker at the Ohio Library Council Expo, the biggest engagement I’ve had to date. As I prepared for it and even during my journey into the building, I almost had to pinch myself over the fact that it was actually happening. Of all the dreams I’ve toyed around with in my life, public speaking was not one of them.

I grew up with much training in public speaking and even took a class in it. I never had a fear of it like many do, but because of my speech impediment due to Cerebral Palsy, I’ve always cowered away from giving a discourse to an audience I don’t know. At one of my lowest points in self-confidence, I dropped out of journalism class because I was terrified the people I interviewed wouldn’t understand me…even though most of them knew me!

Suffice to say, the pleasure I find in performing has always been crowded out by my anxiety about my speech. In high school, I also took drama, but as much as I loved the idea of acting, I never mustered the nerve to audition for a production, despite knowing they sorely needed cast members. On one of those occasions, someone special to me encouraged me to try out and that my voice was better than I thought it was, but I wouldn’t budge.

So, how did I get into public speaking? Clearly, not by my own initiative. Rather, my seventh-grade English teacher gave me a push into it back in 2014. It started as a reading assignment, which I found odd, considering I hadn’t been his student in over ten years. The young adult novel, Out of My Mind, focused on a girl with Cerebral Palsy, so his reason began to make sense once I discovered that. As I read it, I had a hunch he had more in store for me.

Sure enough, he asked me to talk to his class after I returned it. Doubts about my speech still plagued me, but I agreed pretty quickly. Just the fact that he asked me showed me his confidence in me, which infused confidence in myself. I didn’t know if the kids would understand me, but having been that age once, I figured they’d enjoy a day without bookwork if nothing else!

I gave my presentation several times throughout the day as classes came and went, and I enjoyed each one more than the last. My biggest hurdle was content, since to me, I hadn’t accomplished a great deal at that point; I hadn’t yet landed a publishing deal and didn’t have a job or degree I could tout. Nonetheless, the students seemed to appreciate my reflections on my efforts to walk independently, and discussing it also helped me regain some optimism for my future goals.

I returned every year for the next six, and in the meantime, a few other teachers asked me to visit their classrooms. Each experience has boosted my confidence little by little, to the point that I’ll actually volunteer to participate in panels and the like. It culminated to the expo last week, which I never could’ve agreed to without my teacher’s first nudge into public speaking.

Everybody’s intimidated by one prospect or another, and most times, it’s with good reason. I spent several years in speech therapy as a kid but still haven’t developed a voice I’m proud of, and that’s beyond my control. It’s all too easy to say, “I could never…” and feel completely justified. Before you give into that notion, however, consider what you have to lose versus what you have to gain. More than that, listen when someone who knows you well manifests confidence in you. While it might feel like they’re throwing you overboard into unknown waters, they just may be putting you on a raft to a better destination than you ever imagined for yourself.    

See one of my early presentations from 2016 here!

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