My high school speech team experiences failed in a key aspect of grooming public speakers; preparing them for the unexpected, bad situation. We gave speeches in classrooms of polite audiences.
I addressed this gap when coaching high school speech students. One week we had the poised speaking contest. Could you stand up, introduce yourself, and say something briefly in front of a room of badly behaving people trying to distract you? We made it a game, but I had a very real, very serious purpose behind it. Speakers must learn to think on their feet and deal with the unexpected. The pristine speaking environment does not exist in the real world.
For the past 25 years, I’ve spoken in front of different groups, for varied purposes, including teaching computer software classes the past 15 years. My audiences have ranged from preschoolers to senior citizens; from prison inmates to attorneys; from recovering drug addicts to medical professionals; and from front line industrial workers to top level CEO’s.
Some of my more memorable adventures in public speaking:
- A woman groaned in an Excel class while I explained a difficult formula. At first, I thought my formula setup was wrong. Then I realized we were having an earthquake. The class took a break while we checked the geological survey for the Richter reading. It was low, and class continued.
- Once as I spoke, a priest was giving a workshop at the same time. His microphone was being piped into the speakers in my room. I tried to speak over him until in a deep voice that sounded like God Himself speaking to us we heard, “Our Father, who art in heaven….” I stopped, told the attendees I couldn’t talk over a priest praying, and they laughed. We waited till he finished and prepared to move to the hallway when they finally fixed the technical glitch.
- Another time in an Excel class, I asked the class what a spreadsheet formula result meant. At that moment, a student’s cell phone rang, saying, “Don’t go apeshit on MY ass!” To which I responded, I hope that’s not what the result is. The student apologized after the class. I suspect she changed her ring tone.
- During a workshop with utility workers, a terrible storm began. We could hear the sheets of rain hitting the roof. Suddenly, there was a huge crash. I looked outside the classroom and realized the wind had torn the front door from 2 of its 3 hinges. My boss was there and grabbed the door, keeping it from crashing and shattering glass. The utility workers said, “We can fix that. We’ve got tools in our truck.” The class took a break, and I went to the bathroom. When I returned, the door was back in place, the workers’ tools were in their trucks, and they were in the classroom, ready to continue.
Public speaking is an adventure just as thrilling as skiing a slalom. Once you begin, you never know what will happen before you get to the bottom of the mountain. But the more often you experience the unexpected, the better you will handle….
…the earthquake, the severe thunderstorm, or the booming voice that sounds like it’s God Himself overpowering you.