As a professor, public speaking is a nearly daily affair during the academic year. Given that I am not a gregarious person by any stretch of the imagination, that I can do this day in and day out without the least bit of nervousness is remarkable and not a little strange.
I began life as a very shy person, and to this day remain so. Perhaps my initial reticence for public speaking grows out of a childhood speech impediment—an inability to pronounce the letter R—that miraculously vanished when my voice changed at puberty. Prior to that moment, however, talking to anyone was always a struggle. I have many awful memories of being called upon in class or confronted by strangers and finding myself unable to make myself understood because I couldn’t pronounce the sound of an R. Since my name begins with an R, even a simple question, such as “what is your name” was always terrifying. As defense, I learned how to construct sentences with words that lacked that sound. It probably did wonders for my vocabulary development, and it kept all my answers short and to the point.
Put me with a group of people, especially if it is people I don’t know, and chances are they will hardly notice me. Even with people I know, I will still tend to hide. For instance, when I recently had to attend a wedding for the daughter of my old college roommate. I spent the bulk of my time simply listening to the people at my table talking and laughing with one another. Joining in, or adding even a single word to the conversation was a rare event for me. People would not be surprised to see my photograph and my name as part of the definition of “introvert” in the dictionary.
So how can such a painfully shy person, someone who was once utterly terrified of public speaking, now do it on a daily basis without butterflies or the least bit of nervousness? How is it that, in fact, I now do it with relish and joy?
Years of forced labor.
My first speaking engagements were imposed on me when I was a student in school: the inevitable speech classes, where I was forced to stand up and perform verbal feats for the delight of a sadistic teacher whose job was to try to teach the most unwilling people about how to keep from dissolving into a babbling fool on stage.
I must admit that my speech classes in high school, and then later in college, did help me. They taught me how to project my voice, and how to organize my words. They showed me that I could stand in front of a class, talk out loud, and somehow survive the experience still alive and breathing at the end. I also learned an important key of success in public speaking: actually having something to say.
I discovered that if I wrote out what I was going to say and rehearsed it repeatedly, I could get through the torturous experience in one piece. A sizeable part of my fear of public speaking consisted of the fear of standing there with my mouth open and nothing coming out.
My first regular speaking gig was teaching fourth grade boys in Sunday School my senior year of college. It was supposed to be a temporary task. A friend was going on vacation and needed me to fill in for only two Sundays. Could I do that? Reluctantly I agreed, but then she was female and attractive.
Needless to say I was horrified, when, after she returned two weeks later, she informed me that she didn’t want to teach any more and so could I just keep on teaching the class? For some reason I accepted the job and so my two week temporary duty stretched on into my graduate studies at UCLA.
Three years later when someone else—also female—asked me to fill in for an adult Sunday School class, I almost felt like I could do that. My ability to say no when asked to help was far weaker than my terror at public speaking, and so I accepted the duty—which, like the earlier time with children became permanent. A few years later, when I was asked to fill in for my Old Testament professor to teach some college classes at the local Bible college while he was on a leave of absence—well, the rest is history, as they would say.
So now, after many, many years of teaching, standing in front of a group of people has became pretty normal for me. I can spin words whether I’ve carefully crafted a lesson now or not. I never lack for something to talk about.
Periodically, I now get asked to fill in for my pastor—or the pastors in other churches—when one is on vacation or ill. With the recent resignation of our current pastor (for the past 21 years) I will wind up having to preach on a regular basis until we find a replacement. My performance will doubtless be adequate.
Nevertheless, I still find myself very reluctant to strike up conversations outside of a classroom setting and remain to this day something of a wallflower. Invite me to a party and you may still barely know I was there.