When I was in high school, I had the option of taking senior English or a speech class.  I made the correct decision: I chose the speech class.  My speech teacher, Mrs. Miller, was great.  She definitely wasn’t just fooling around. She assigned and I gave many speeches which helped me overcome, to some degree, my fear of public speaking.

The most common fear among folks is the fear of public speaking.  The fear of speaking ranks above the fear of spiders, darkness, heights, people, flying, open spaces, thunder and lightning, confined spaces, and, yes, death.  Some people would rather die than speak before a group.

It’s time for you to learn a new word: glossophobia.  Some times it’s called social anxiety disorder.  Fear of public speaking  affects men and women equally;   75% of us suffer from this fear.

Glossophobia is the primary reason I said that I had made the correct decision to take speech in high school rather than senior English.  I almost completely froze during my first speech class presentation.  Holy moly, it was tough.  I used various methods to attempt to make speaking before a group a little easier.  The most effective was a kind of a self-hypnosis which I applied while I waited on my turn to speak.  Unfortunately, I apparently overdid my self-hypnosis because I was so relaxed that my mind wandered to other subjects in the middle of giving my speech.  I recall pausing to look out the window of the classroom: not a good thing.  I can’t claim that I ever overcame my phobia completely, but I did make headway even if I did have to give up my self-hypnosis.

In my high school speech class, we were asked to give various kinds of presentations of various lengths.  We, of course, were given time to write our speeches and practice them before a mirror before the dreaded day of presentation.  What an agony all this was for me.

I tended to try to make my speeches amusing...well, actually, I tried to make them hilarious but had to settle for amusing as a rule.  I recall preparing a Biblical story involving an ass.  Now, I figured I could get away with the use of the word “ass,” because it is used in the Bible.  I was right and the word did cause a lot of frivolity.  I think one of the funniest speeches I ever gave in class was about golf.  If you’ve ever seen me play, you’d know why the subject lends itself to humor.  In fact, I got to be pretty good at these “after dinner” type of speeches.  We would go to various colleges where other high schools along with ours would meet to compete with each other in various forms of speechifying.  My specialty was the after dinner speech.  After dinner speeches were supposed to be speeches of a humorous nature.  I did pretty well in these competitions, but an audience mainly composed of your competitors is not the easiest of audiences.

I know that I benefited from my high school speech class.  That class, along with typing, have probably helped me through life more than any others.

My view of political speeches changed after an experience I had early in my career in education.  The first time I heard the speech given by a local state representative at a school function, I was highly impressed.  It was a spread eagle, flag waving dandy of a speech delivered with gusto.  A couple of years later, the representative returned for another presentation.  I was not nearly as impressed this time: it was the same speech, and two years later, again the same speech.  It made me suspect that this might be common among politicians.

President Obama is widely praised for his ability to make an impressive speech delivery.   Frankly, I don’t consider reading from a teleprompter a legitimate speech.  Yeah, yeah, I know, some times it’s necessary.  However, some of the shine came off my admiration when I realized that when he orders a cup of coffee, he uses a teleprompter.

Oratory or rhetoric, the skill of public speaking, is used by politicians to influence the masses they represent; Abraham Lincoln, Charles De Gaulle, and, yes, Hitler used their oratory skills to define their nations.  Martin Luther King, Jr., and India’s Gandhi used their speaking skills to give inspirational speeches to help turn the tide of history in favor of their people.

The Greeks were the masters of public speaking.  The Romans even sent their children to Greece to improve their skills.  Demosthenes, Cicero, and Cato were among the early Greek masters of public speaking.  Somehow I learned about Demosthenes while in high school.  It seems that he practiced speaking with pebbles in his mouth and recited verses while running.  I had a problem with slurring words, something which was pointed out to me by my parents sending me to a private speech therapist at about age eight.  I don’t remember much about this experience except that it involved a lot of exaggerated sounds coming out of her mouth and mine.  While taking speech in high school, I practiced some of my speeches with pebbles in my mouth like Demosthenes.  As for the running while reciting verses, I passed on this activity.

Oratory has always been emphasized by the church and produced great orators like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox.

The Twentieth Century produced a number of influential speakers: William Jennings Bryan, Eugene Debs, Susan B. Anthony, Woodrow Wilson, Lenin, Trotsky, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill.

In the Nineteenth Century, the orator’s stage was occupied by popular providers of entertainment: Mark Twain and Charles Dickens are two which come to mind.  Twain was widely sought after as a public speaker.  People clamored to hear Twain share his wit and wisdom.  The story about his public speaking I like best is the following. Twain while speaking to a rather large and distinguished group gave a speech which was totally devoid of meaning.  When he came to its conclusion, the audience reacted with stunned silence.  Twain cleared his throat and repeated the speech he had just given.  Again, stunned silence.  Twain once again cleared his throat and once more began his nonsensical speech.  At that moment, the audience understood what he was doing and realized that the joke was on them and gave him a standing ovation.

I said that my high school speech class helped me overcome my fear of public some degree.  “To some degree” showed up during the first English class I was to teach in high school.  I had graduated from LSU, served two years in the army, and was suddenly before a group of thirty seniors.  I have no idea if the class realized how nervous I was that hour, but I realized it.  It was another torture for me.  As the day wore on, it became easier and I never suffered from this problem least not in class.

Linda has been called on to give speeches on a number of occasions.  Probably the most memorable was a high school Future Homemakers of America presentation.  If she were nervous, I couldn’t tell.  She looked as cool as a cucumber and totally confident during her presentation.  She later confessed that she had feared that the audience would see her shaking during her speech.  If she were shaking, she was shaking internally because it was not visible to the naked eye.  I think I would have a difficult time giving such a public presentation to such an audience.

The best advice I think that anyone has ever given me about speaking in a public forum was the night I was to be in a high school play.  He was a senior, and I wasn’t.  Noticing that I seemed agitated about the eminent performance, he took me aside and said, “In a hundred years, all these folks (the audience) will be dead.”  I know it should not have been reassuring to me, but it was.

As an adult, I’ve had to make a few public presentations, but each time has been on a subject with which I had intimate knowledge.  Knowledge of one’s subject is probably the best medicine for glossophobia.  If you don’t have a thorough knowledge of your subject, it might be a good time to leave town.

When I was teaching, I always had students give at least one speech each school year.   I assigned the speeches mainly to give them some experience in a speaking situation.  I knew most were fearful of speaking situations, so I kept the time to a minimum; I never asked for more than five minute speeches.   Usually I had to call names for wont of volunteers, but in one class I was pleasantly surprised with an immediate volunteer.  He was a lad who had a horrible stuttering problem.  I recognized as he approached the podium that he had been taking to heart the advice I’d been giving about how to approach the podium, how to stand, how to take a moment to look at the members of the audience.  Then he began his speech in a very deliberate manner.  Now, he did stammer and stutter, but he kept it under control.  When he concluded his speech, he hesitated a moment to make good eye contact with the class and slowly began to walk back to his desk.  Holy moly!  He did it!  I  began to clap and then the entire class began to applaud.  He was just about the best surprise I ever received in a classroom.  I think Charles went on to become a minister or, as we like to call them in this part of the country, a preacher.

Being that I went on to become an English teacher, it is a little ironic that I skipped my high school senior English course for a speech class, but I have no regrets.  Thanks, Mrs. Miller.


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