Four kinetic currents rumbled through the first round of the International Platform Association's Speaking Ladder: nervousness, individuality, and Frank and Olivia.
The nervousness was inherent. Sixty-one people with very little in common would soon converge, one by one on a bare stage, to speak about extremely personal, sometimes eccentric topics. They would not be speaking much: 90 seconds, to be exact. At 1:20 yesterday afternoon, 10 minutes before the competition began, you could hear the stomachs rumble.
The individuality was a necessity. Only by standing out, by filling a speech with oddity after oddity, would one have a good chance of going the four rounds of competition. The man who told the tale of the bride who wore a corduroy wedding dress so her blind groom could hear her walking up the aisle seemed to know this.
Frank Fowle and the Rev. Olivia Miller were there because ... well, because they just had to be.
Miller sat in the front of the small Grand Hyatt auditorium before the contest began, fingering Austrian amethyst beads, which she said give her energy, and practicing her speech, "You," which would deal with self-awareness. An energy channeler from Oslo, N.Y., who just this morning conducted a spiritual healing, Miller did not want to be called New Age. Nor did she want to be linked with Shirley MacLaine.
"I've been channeling a lot more than she has," Miller sniffed. Then she gazed upward, entranced with the crystal chandeliers. "These crystals will help me, give me energy," she whispered. "They will help everyone."
Fowle, a professional speaker from St. Louis, sat in the back of the auditorium, stoic and straight-backed, with a look quite similar to Jack Nicholson's in "The Shining." People were leaving Fowle alone. Fowle's intensity, which later gave way to charm, was frightening. Fowle wanted to win.
His speech, which he would deliver in a flowing black robe made from a "cotton-synthetic base," was titled "The Recipe for Greatness." It was first recited "in 431 B.C. by Pericles. He wrote it at the outset of the war. Part of the speech he wrote, part is mine."
Despite the topic, Fowle said, he is not an intellectual. "No," he said, "a man of action."
And if he were to win?
"The ultimate effect of a win, the true ultimate effect of a win," he said, "would be the rise of greatness in the heroes. The ideal consequence would be for heroes to rise to greatness. That would be the ideal consequence. Obviously, though, the more immediate consequence would be for me to get bookings."
Fowle's instinct, as last year's Speaking Ladder winner, Delmar Wood Jr., said, was on the mark. Since his 1986 victory, Wood, a judge this year, has made 25 speeches, been asked to make many more, been named the public speaking instructor at the National Institutes of Health and has seen his fee rise from "nothing to $750 a speech."
Now in its sixth year, the Ladder is the layman's chance to shine at the annual IPA conference, along with the likes of "Mayflower Madam" Sydney Biddle Barrows and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. According to David Best, one of the event's organizers, anyone can enter, and speak about any topic. The Ladder, he said, "covers the spectrum." People do it more for the fun and attention than for the money. Indeed, the first-place prize, to be awarded Friday afternoon, is a silver bowl. No cash. But no matter.
"This competition is a stepping stone towards greater things," Best said. "It's not going to make a millionaire out of anyone. But it will give someone a first-class re'sume' line."
According to Best, the first round of the competition -- in which contestants are forced to edit their masterworks into minutes -- is the place to be if you enjoy seeing other people in pain. (Those who make it to the second rung, and then the third, get more time: 5 1/2 minutes, to be exact. The winner gets to speak Friday for a full half hour.) Best said he has seen people pull blanks, excuse themselves with a simple "sorry" and ooze away from the podium, betrayed by the heebie-jeebies. "You gotta have good nerves," he said.
A judge reading the rules before yesterday's competition began apparently agreed. "Don't embarrass me," he said to the quaking throng, "or yourself."
Ten minutes into the first round, and the camps are determined: Those Who Are Nervous, and Those Who Are Not. Miller is in the first group, Fowle in the second. Though their emotional states differ, they have one thing in common: the competition.
In the first 15 minutes they are subjected to speeches about:
Love: As in the bride in the corduroy dress.
Ethics: "Who needs them?" says the speaker.
Food: "I love food," says this speaker. "Don't you?"
The Meaning of Life: All in 90 seconds.
Christopher Columbus: This is the guy, the speaker says with a gleam in his eye, who brought syphilis to Europe.
By "The Meaning of Life," Fowle is ready to knock 'em dead. Drops of sweat fall from his neck, yet he says he is "not nervous." That revelation out, he walks to the hot seat and speaks, visions of Pericles tumbling from his lips.
The audience loves him. "He must be an actor," says one elderly competitor to another halfway through the speech. She paused. "It's not fair."
In 90 seconds, Frank Fowle had become Gordon Liddy, his audience the flame over which he passed his hand.
Back in his seat, he is happy. "I give myself a B plus," he says, smiling. The mood changed instantly. "Hear that creak up there?" he asks, glowering in the direction of the podium. "Did you hear it? They should not have that creak up."
And there is more. "I don't think I got my full minute and a half," he says. "I wanted to say one last juicy sentence. They should have a clock up in back, or something."
His complaints are forgotten when the announcer reveals that the next speaker's topic is "Women of Courage."
"Oooh," says Fowle, "that's a great topic."
Miller is not as lucky as Frank. She is in the second camp, and has to wait a long time to speak. Finally, the ninth speaker into a group of 12, she walks to the podium and expounds on the wonders of energy.
She is charming, but she is no Fowle. Her nerves show. Her speech is clouded with "ums" and "ahs" -- definite no-nos. She is an audience pleaser, though, and if nothing else, that acceptance makes her happy.
"I'm very happy," she coos upon conclusion of her speech. "Very happy. Regardless of what it brings, you're able to reach out to a group of people."
At 7 p.m., the 12 survivors (and two alternates) of the first round were announced. Fowle was among the lucky, Miller wasn't.
To her, that didn't matter. "I'm just here," she had said metaphysically, "for the energy."