A survey once disclosed the supposedly astonishing fact that people fear public speaking more than they fear dying. I, for one, wasn’t astonished. I do a fair amount of public speaking. It can be slow death.
The worst speaking engagement I ever had was a couple of years ago, when I was invited to give the keynote address at a fancy gala in honor of an animal rescue organization. The guests arrived in formal wear, with their dogs. There was a serious noise problem.
No, the dogs were quiet. They were on their best behavior, except for a few who got overwhelmed and, understandably, pooped in the flowerpots. It’s the people who were the problem. There was an open bar that was going to eventually become a pay bar; this is an arrangement that is not a recipe for early-evening moderation.
By the time I got to the lectern, the audience was as supersaturated and sloshy as Niagara Falls, only louder. Hundreds of people were in animated conversation with each other, straining to make their points over the annoying background murmur of
a public address system.
The simple solution would have been to cut my losses — mumble a good-natured word or two into the moist roar of the crowd, take a bow and then walk offstage. Unfortunately, this option was closed to me for the same reason Bob Woodward could not reveal the identity of Deep Throat: The Integrity of Journalism. On the following day, the Washington Post Magazine — printed days in advance — was going to contain the text of the speech that it said I had given the night before. To avoid an embarrassing error, I had to bull ahead with the whole 15-minute speech.
The experience was so excruciating that my brain has mostly wiped out the specifics, in a Darwinian mercy to preserve my options in the future, the way women’s brains erase the pain of childbirth.
Because of this, I seldom publish speeches in advance anymore. This policy proved fortunate just the other day, when I was the featured speaker at the start of a five-kilometer race around Washington’s historic Congressional Cemetery. It was called the Dead Man’s Run. (The official T-shirts featured a drawing of a skeleton in sneakers running.)
This audience was not sloppy drunk; in fact, they were lean and taut and champing at the bit, eager to sproing away from the starting line, not particularly interested in the allegedly witty observations of some guy who looked as lean and taut as a Fluffernutter® cupcake. Also, the PA system seemed to be working in reverse; I spoke more loudly into the mike than what came out of the speaker. It was like yelling into the fat end of a funnel. So the runners could not hear me even if they wanted to, which they didn’t.
After a minute or two, I realized this was oddly liberating. No one could hear me. I could say whatever I wanted into that mike. So I told them that there had been a last-minute adjustment and the race was now a full 26-mile marathon. No reaction. I said that people of Norwegian descent would be ineligible to compete because I didn’t like them. No reaction. I said the race was creepy, like going to the cafeteria at the National Aquarium and ordering fish. No reaction.
In short, I was giving a speech at a cemetery, and I was dying up there, and it felt fine.
E-mail Gene at firstname.lastname@example.org.