Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Public Speaking

In the prison library, I once got a written request for a "bok that teeches you how too do oritory." For this prisoner, speaking clearly and well was a skill he wanted to develop as he was appealing his conviction and representing himself. I found him a book on making speeches and reminded myself that intelligence is not always dependent on literacy although I did not have high hopes for the success of his case. This same prisoner also asked me for a list of every law book ever published, because he wanted to buy them all.

Anyway, I grew up performing in Christmas pageants and participating in the Liturgy of the Word at church, so public speaking was never really a problem for me.  I did it without thinking. As part of my final thesis requirement in college, I had to read some original writing in front of a large group of my peers and I got nervous for the first time I can remember.  The writing was personal and I thought I might start crying. It always annoyed me when other people got emotional while reading out loud and I was mortified. My voice shook and no one could hear me. 

In library school I had to do several group presentations, and in the Management class I was part of a group that imploded mid-semester due to personal conflicts, bad tempers and mental illness. Standing unprepared in front of the class with no one in the group willing to look at or speak to each other was probably the most awkward and embarrassing moment I’d ever experienced. I’d known it was going to happen though and warned the professor (and also checked that failing the presentation didn’t equal failing the class).

So, I suppose those experiences were in the back of my mind when, after I’d become a professional librarian, I was asked to introduce a speaker at a national conference. I wasn’t the speaker, mind you, I was only supposed to introduce him. I went to the chair of the committee and asked if I could switch tasks with someone else. The Chair interpreted my request as an admission of a full-fledged phobia, and not as the lazy-don’t-really-feel-like-it mumble that it was. His concern was so great that for the rest of the conference he kept passing me information about public-speaking courses and practical exercises in overcoming fears. I couldn’t correct him because I knew how unprofessional it was to back out of an assignment for any reason other than extreme terror.

He left the committee after that conference and by the time the next one rolled around no one remembered my “phobia” of public speaking. By that point I was more confident professionally anyway. I gave a series of lectures around the county on prison librarianship and, as long as the subject is libraries, I’m fine speaking in groups of any size. But put me in a social setting with people I don’t know, and I’m lucky if I can remember my own name.

*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on June 4, 2011

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