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Public speaking can leave you speechless

Posted: Sunday, November 10, 2002

"Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, associates, treasured clients, most esteemed board members, fellow delegates, Your Honor, (long pause) I feel compelled to share with you that I have no news, no insight, no conclusions and no clue. I doubt I can answer any questions, and I'll be sitting over there. Thank you."

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com.

Knowing full well that many of us accurately store only a portion of what we learn and that repeating what we've learned in an organized way does not come naturally, we, the shy, nevertheless, occasionally allow ourselves to be booked into speaking assignments. It's a mystery why we do it, knowing in our hearts that we will perform poorly at best. Being run over by a bus is worse than having to give a speech for some of us, but not by much.

In theory, any person should be able to extend the basic communication skills used at home, the office or cocktail parties to a group situation. A few moments to organize what you want to say, a sip of water, a nice greeting and away you go, right? Sadly, it doesn't work that way for shy people. Any ideas or stories milling around in our heads with their little hands up, swearing they're ready for an audience, suddenly panic, run screaming in circles then dive for deep cover when someone suggests we get up and share them with the group. Left alone in the headlights, we seize up. You would think that no one would ever ask us to speak again, but they must forget. I don't pretend to understand it.

A lot of people, shy or not, never learned to speak well, so we've all had to sit through a ton of really bad speeches. Either they are hard to follow, hard to hear, don't relate to anything we know or go on too long. Having been in the audience for many years, when I get up to speak I'm still part of that audience, looking at me and telling myself that no one is remotely interested in what I'm about to say. And that what I'm wearing, by the way, is totally inappropriate.

I can speak to a group if most of them are not looking at me. If the audience is looking out the windows at fabulous scenery, reading or sleeping, I can whip up a cheery greeting, natter about my topic, draw a reasonable conclusion, and ask for questions without much thought at all. I can speak on radio with no idea whom or what many be listening and have a great time. But for a shy person like me, a quiet room with an alert, attentive crowd and someone's witty introduction are just asking for trouble. I am almost never comfortable enough to be thoughtful, chatty or in any way charming. A fiend shared that she takes off her glasses to speak to a group. She says it's much easier if the audience is a soft blur of shapes and colors. You can't see them looking at you or your clothing.

What inspires me to try to become a better speaker is hearing a good speaker. There are several storytellers in Juneau who are spellbinding. There are speakers who set a scene and fill it with compelling information, then send you on your way a changed person. Don't you wish you could do that? Me, too. Fortunately, Juneau has two chapters of a public speaking club created to help us. I visited one morning this fall as a guest and the group was very welcoming. With hope, I introduced myself. "My name is Nita. I'm, uh ... sitting down now." They're nice people and find interesting things to make speeches to each other about. The subject matter is home, family, work, hobbies and travel, just like in real life. The idea seems to be that you get comfortable talking about things you know in a supportive setting, practice, develop good habits, then go on to a lucrative career in motivational speaking. Or just stress free meetings, weddings, testimony, etc.

So how does a shy person work through that process? First, you have to believe that what you are saying is interesting to someone, preferably someone in the room. Tough, I know, but maybe you can locate that person ahead of time and invite them. Then you have to get over the people looking at you part. Don't look at me; the best I can come up with is having fabulous scenery scroll across the inside of my glasses with my speech text. Then I take off the glasses when I'm finished to ask the soft blur of shapes and colors if they have any questions.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com.



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