We have all types here on the Upper West Side, including those who are shy about public speaking. I used to be one of them. Okay, I still am, but hopefully getting better.
I realized that even if I were able to successfully dodge all speaking requests for planned events, there could come a day of unavoidable pressure. Like if everyone started to yell, “Speech! Speech!”, I might be forced into compliance.
A few years ago, I got some good advice: “Toastmasters, Toastmasters, Toastmasters.” That’s what my older brother said when I told him I was scared to make speeches.
I found out there are lots of meetings the upper west side and all around town. I chose the nearby “Douglas Elliman Westside Toasties” on Broadway at 68th Street because it was an easy walk from my apartment.
It featured a group of warmly encouraging people who smiled and clapped a lot. When the day of my first big speech arrived, I walked up to the head of the table and stood in front of a small podium. My main concern was weak and wobbly knees. Just walking up there turned my legs into rubber. Could I remain standing for the duration? I wanted to say, “I’m so sorry. I just need to sit down now,” but that is not considered good speechmaking. Also, my heart was beating way too fast. Would it burst out of my chest before I could finish?
I began to hear words coming out of my mouth. They were slow and steady as a way to stay centered, which made my delivery seem deadpan and understated. I opened by saying, “Some people love making speeches and they can’t wait to get into the spotlight. That’s good, they should do that.” From the back of the room, I heard the most beautiful sound in the world from a single laugh. I hadn’t thought of that before. Of course. Humor as relaxation. My whole body started smiling. I could do this.
Afterwards, during the feedback session, someone gave me a life-changing compliment: “You remind me of Bob Newhart.” These words reframed my approach to handling fear. Just be a deadpan comedian if possible.
Years later, still bolstered by my Toastmasters success, I was asked to speak about a local cable television show I wrote and produced that hardly anyone watched. The purpose was to tell the audience the secrets of success. Piece of cake. As long as there’s a microphone involved so people can hear me and a podium I can lean on, I’ll be fine. I would much prefer to remain seated while talking but no one ever asks for that.
At first, everything seemed fine. Mild jitters walking up to the stage gave way to diving into a grand explanation of my creation and what inspired me as an artist. They were actually listening. After a while, I leaned on the podium for strength, as my knees were beginning to weaken. Much to my horror, the podium had wheels and could not be leaned on. This can’t be happening! Pure terror. How could I possibly rely on just myself?
The moderator asked, “Are there any more questions?” I prayed with all my might, “Please dear God, no more questions.” I was ready to announce the dreaded, “I’m so sorry. I just need to sit down now,” but thankfully no one raised another hand and I heard the blissful sound of applause. All I had to do was smile and nod and return to my solid chair. Finally back in the seated position, I savored one of my very favorite feelings in life: relief. The next speaker had now become the center of attention.
I learned a lot that day. For example, even if you start to feel completely confident, watch out for curve balls. Keep practicing and flow with the process. There is an opportunity for growth every time. Even Stephen Colbert said he gets a little nervous each night before going on camera. John Lennon would sometimes throw up before going on stage. Let’s not even think about that.
I also learned not to forget humor. I should have made a joke about the podium-on-wheels situation. It may have caused a laugh and that would have transformed everything.
They say it’s important to focus on making the audience feel comfortable rather than always thinking about yourself. I need to remember that too.
My advice for any speechmaker is to open strong, talk loud enough, and close with a bang. It can change your life. Just make sure the podium doesn’t have wheels.