If You Can Meet With Public Speaking Triumph and Disaster, and Treat Those Two Imposters Just the Same

September 21, 2010

My first Toastmasters presentation. It’s long and bad and nobody should watch it. The video is below, but you’ve been warned.

Steve Jobs is renowned for his natural and conversational presentation style. But he rehearses rigorously.

Steve Jobs is renowned for his natural and conversational presentation style. But he rehearses rigorously.

Yesterday I delivered my first Toastmasters speech, the Ice Breaker. The purpose of the Ice Breaker is to simply introduce yourself to your club.

Below you’ll find my presentation’s:

  1. Video
  2. Transcript
  3. Feedback
  4. My ideas on improving my speaking

1. Video

My speech is titled “If You Can Meet With Public Speaking Triumph and Disaster, and Treat Those Two Imposters Just the Same.” The title is a play-on-words of my favorite poem: Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”

2. Transcript

First, if you’re wondering about this mark on my shirt, I decided to be healthy and bike here today rather than drive. But the strap of my briefcase left this mark. So remember that the next time you get the bright idea to do something healthy.

Have you read in the Toastmasters guide where it recommends that you plan your speech opening and that you don’t deviate from it? Even if you think of something just before your speech that you believe might work better?

I’m breaking that rule tonight because as I was riding my bike here, I was listening to some music on my iPod to help calm me before my speech. And the first song that comes on is “Help I’m Alive” by Metric, with the lyrics,

They’re going to eat me alive, if I stumble. They’re going to eat me alive if I fumble. Can you hear my heart beating like a hammer?

So with that positive omen, I’ll begin.

Do you remember giving your first public speech?

I was ten years old, in grade six, when I lost my public-speaking virginity.

Now I know some kids are doin’ it even younger these days, but still. The year before this, my school chose me to attend a conference for young authors based on a short story I had written. Now a year later, my school asked me to deliver a two-minute version of the story at a school recital in front of about 200 parents.

I knew most people find public speaking terrifying. But I’m ten years old. And like all ten-year-olds, including you when you were ten, I kinda feel I’m the master of the universe. If I wrote a story, I think I can talk about it, alright? Fear of public speaking? Pfff. That’s for losers.

Mister Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, and welcome guests: I strut to the microphone — as you would expect of the master of the universe.

And as the audience is silent and as I hear my little voice boom into the mic to fill the entire gym, my first thought is: Yeah. I’ve paid my dues my whole life. It took me a long time to get here. But now my time has arrived.

At age ten, everyone is finally listening to me.

My whole life has went downhill from the the initial high that I felt in that moment.

Because my second thought on the stage is actually a breakthrough, scientific discovery: Did you know that the human brain starts working the moment you are born, and it never stops — until you stand up to speak in public?

I forgot the next line of my speech. Hell, I couldn’t even remember what my speech was about anymore. Suddenly I was no longer master of the universe, but I was the center of the universe for the audience in that moment, and I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

I was a deer in headlights, dumbfounded, staring blankly at these parents.A speech in progress... looks like fun

Five seconds that feel like five decades go by. Has this ever happened to you while delivering a speech? In terms of fun, I’d say this is right up there with having a root canal, maybe a colonoscopy? Another three seconds pass and I hear a few murmurs in the crowd as I see parents cringing.

Now I’m a little kid and not supposed to swear, but screw it: in my mind I’m repeating a word that begins with “F.”

Then a miracle happens. My teacher — sitting in the front row — leans forward and whispers to me the next line of my speech. I don’t know how he knew it, but I still send this guy Christmas cards.

Because the line gets me back on track, I somehow finish my speech and the audience applauds, but on that night I conclude that though writing is hard work, speaking ain’t no cakewalk, either.

I’ll share with you three more speeches that highlight my lifelong triumphs and mostly disasters with public speaking:

  • The first speech occurs when I’m in high school
  • The second is from university
  • And the third is from volunteering that I do today

1. My bad history in history class

I made my first high-school speech in grade nine. As I stand before my history class, again my mind goes blank. I’m developing a nice pattern here for those of you keeping track.

I look to my history teacher for a bailout, but unlike my grade six teacher, she doesn’t know my lines. Yeah, she’s just there to grade my speech apparently, she’s totally useless.

I confess to my class, “I’m not ready. I’ll do this another day.” But my history teacher encourages me. She’s one of those annoying perky types.

“Go on Kevin, you can do it!”

“I appreciate the enthusiasm, I really do, but — no I can’t.”

“It will all alright!”

“Mmm, yeah — I’m gonna have to go ahead and sort of disagree with you there. Yeah — it will not be alright. Mmmkay?”

A week later, I deliver the speech almost verbatim, but what I remember about the speech was a girl sitting about where Wilson is.

During my speech her face is misery incarnate: half weary, half annoyed, a face that said, “If you could induce death by boredom, this is what the victim’s face would look like!”

From this speech, I learn that I need to be more entertaining, but I also accept that I can’t win over everyone every time. Except with you Toastmasters, I expect you all to give me a big applause after this. C’mon, this is my Ice Breaker. Throw me a bone.

2. An elevator pitch that’s right on the money

The second speech happened while I was in university, when I went to hear an entrepreneur speak. As I enter the auditorium, an organizer asks me:

Before our speaker presents, how would you like to participate in an elevator-pitch contest? Just give a 60-second pitch for a new business idea. The winner gets $50.

“I don’t have any new business ideas.”

spotlight and giants staring at public speaker“You can make one up! It’s just 60 seconds. Look man, here’s the deal. I’ve gotta have four contestants before this guy speaks, I only have three, I need one more, what do you say, give it a shot!”

I survey the audience and that my grade six teacher isn’t here to support me, but also absent is that miserable hag from history class, so what the hell:
“Alright, I’ll do it.”

And I win! I get $50 for 60 seconds of my time. That’s a pretty good rate; $3,000 an hour if I could charge by the minute.

After winning, I feel that I’ve come a long way as a presenter. Maybe I’ve finally arrived as a good speaker. Maybe I’ve even reclaimed my rightful title as Master of the Universe.

But do you find that just when you think you’ve mastered something, you then have a humbling experience?

3. Managing teenagers is a bit like corralling cats?

That brings me to this summer, for my third and final speech story.

I volunteer with Junior Achievement. This summer, I facilitated a Junior Achievement program called Dream Big, which involves facilitating a three-hour program with 45 teenagers, and I did it five times.

The second time I facilitated Dream Big, I walk into a classroom of teenagers that are — what’s a polite way to describe these little bastards — strong-minded? A bit unruly?

The students are somewhat engaged with my material, but the moment they sense, “This chump can’t control a classroom,” they being to walk over me. They become increasingly loud and interruptive. By the end of the morning I had lost order.

Then I witness an amazing thing. The students went into a classroom with a new teacher. The same teenagers were now actively participating, and rarely did they lose focus, interrupt the teacher, or goof off.

When a student did something that detracted from the lesson, the teacher corrected the student immediately and efficiently. I watched astonished.

The teacher explained to me that to gain the respect of the kids, you have to immediately establish yourself as the alpha-male or -female, as the leader.

You need to correct any misbehaviour promptly and consistently — in a firm but fair manner — with direct, simple instructions.

When a kid lifts his desk, you can’t ignore it, and you can’t ask, “Excuse me, if you don’t mind, would you please put that desk down?”

Instead you need to tell the student, with authority, “Put that desk down.”

You need to lead with your nonverbal communication, too: standing straight, looking directly at students, and walking closer to them to engage or to correct.

In the next class I facilitated — Mr. Toastmaster — do you think I was able to maintain order? You’re goddamn right I did.

And that’s not all. The students completed the exercises more thoughtfully. The students and staff said it was an enjoyable and impactful program and I was asked to deliver the program to another group.

Public speaking is tough: three out of three people who do it end up dying eventually

As I reflect from grade six to today, I see that improving my public speaking has been a lifelong process. Sometimes I do well. Sometimes I bomb. Yeah I bomb a lot actually.

But I keep practicing because we all have to be public speakers at times — and I don’t want to suck. Do you want to suck? No.

But public speaking is tough. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this: But three out of three people who do it end up dying eventually.

I’ve wanted to deliver this ice breaker speech for two months, and I just couldn’t think of anything to talk about. My girlfriend said:

What do you mean you don’t have anything to talk about? You never shut-up around me. Why don’t you go give a speech to your little Toastmaster friends and give me a break for a night?

“You never shut-up, you talk too much.” (A red light now shows that I’ve exceeded the time-limit for my speech.) If anyone tells my girlfriend what that red light means, I’ll never hear the end of it.

But here are my final words: I respect you Toastmasters, because like you, I’ve committed to building my speaking and leadership skills, and you know how challenging this is.

Winston Churchill, a guy tough-enough to stand-up to Hitler, acknowledged just how hard speaking is when he confessed:

There are two things that are more difficult than making a speech: climbing a wall that is leaning toward you and kissing a girl who is leaning away from you.

Thanks for not eating me alive. Mr. Toastmaster.

3. Feedback

My speech evaluator said that my speech was “very exciting” and that she “can tell [I am] a jolly person.” What she liked most was my “enthusiasm, eye contact with the audience, and the laughter.”

For improvement, she suggested that I move around less.

I appreciate her gracious remarks. Toastmaster evaluators are constructive and supportive. When I watch my taped speeches from university, I see that I used to present in a grave and formal manner.

It’s good to know that I now present more naturally.

4. My ideas on improving my speaking

  1. A technical note: First, someday get a camcorder that can record better in dim conditions. Our library meeting room has nice pot lighting, but the video is dark. Second, zoom-in the camera so it will be easier to see my facial expressions.
  2. Stay in one place for a few moments before moving. Move as I’m about to start a new topic or make a new point, so the physical move helps express the speech transition.
  3. I stood to the right of the camera more than I did to the left of the camera. I should use both sides equally, so audience members on both sides feel that I am equally engaged with them.
  4. My evaluator said that I had excellent eye contact with the audience and I feel that I connected with everyone. But I notice that I have a tendency — as many speakers do — to look downward for a moment when I’m thinking about my next line. I look downward a lot! When I rehearsed, I prevented myself from looking at the floor by instead looking at myself in the mirror. When speaking before an audience, I’ll try ensuring that I always maintain eye contact with a member of the audience (unless I want to deliberately look elsewhere for effect).

    Sir Ken Robinson is a thoughtful and humorous speaker

    Sir Ken Robinson is a thoughtful and humorous speaker.

  5. During the first half of my speech, I forgot to say a couple of my jokes, and parts of my speech didn’t come out quite the way I’d rehearsed. But rehearsing is easier than performing and I was less relaxed during the first half of my speech. In the future, I think I’ll remember more as I become more relaxed with practice. But almost nobody delivers a speech verbatim. And if you do, you risk sounding too rehearsed.
  6. Pause for a moment after telling a joke. I’m not expecting people to burst out laughing all the time, but many people were smiling during my speech, and it seems I would have got more and longer laughs if I had given people some time to digest the jokes or anecdotes. My pace was a little too quick: Sometimes when people did start laughing, I immediately continued talking, so then they stopped laughing so they could hear the next thing I was saying. By contrast, Jerry Seinfeld, during his first appearance on the Tonight Show, pauses after delivering a joke, and he doesn’t resume talking until the audience has had a moment to enjoy their laugh. (I’m not saying I should get as many laughs as Seinfeld of course, but we still need to pause after sharing a joke or punchline.)
  7. If I’m going to make a gesture, then fully commit to it. I rushed through a few facial expressions and body gestures, because I wasn’t sure if I really liked them. Thus, some gestures look choppy and artificial rather than relaxed and natural. Either I should do them fully or not do them at all. Halfhearted gestures are like halfhearted dance moves. (Maybe that’s why my dancing sucks.)
  8. Avoid using the word “so” as a transition word. I didn’t write any “so’s” into my speech, but I said a few “so’s” when I delivered it.
  9. My mouth was dry during my speech, causing me to lick my lips a few times. I had a glass of water within reach, so maybe next time I’ll take a sip during a transition, or after I’ve said something that I want to give the audience a moment to consider.

So this was my first speech and I didn’t die. How was your first speaking experience?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex September 22, 2010 at 6:17 am

Nice speech Kevin! Good to see you developing your strengths again. Taping is a great idea, but difficult as you say. Your audio came out pretty well; usually it’s the most challenging part. You can pick up a cheap wireless lapel mic for about $50 if your camera has an audio input (I’m shopping for one now)


Kevin Kane September 22, 2010 at 6:40 am

Thanks Alex. My camcorder doesn’t have an audio input. When I upgrade my camcorder, I’m going to get one that has an audio input, high-definition, and the capability to record better in low-light conditions.

When I need a wireless mic, I’ll definitely check with you to see what you’re using. Thanks mate.


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