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Pretending the audience is naked doesn't help

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow
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A retired English professor, Dolly Withrow is the author of four books, including "The Confident Writer," a grammar-based college textbook.

It all began innocently enough. The call came on an icy morning in late winter. The caller asked if I would be willing to serve on a panel discussion for her organization. 

She said I would discuss my good organizational skills. When I said I had none, she insisted I had to be an organized person because I had attended college late in life while, at the same time, caring for a family. This woman was a stranger, but she knew a great deal about me. I decided it would be fun, that there would be nothing for me to do but eat a delicious lunch and look important while sitting at the panel's table. I could just agree with the other panel members, nodding occasionally, so I accepted her invitation. Later, feeling guilty, I wrote a letter to her in which I again tried to convince her I was anything but organized. It didn't work. 

On the day of the panel discussion, I entered the meeting room ready to have a good time. I soon discovered there were three other members on the panel. As I chatted with them during the luncheon, I discovered something else. There was no panel. Each was prepared to make a brief speech. There I sat with nothing to say. Fortunately, I had with me a copy of the letter I had written to the caller. I would read it and then ad lib. As the woman — tall, svelte and self-assured — introduced me, she told her fellow members she hoped I would one day write a humorous book, that my letter to her was hilarious. She proceeded to read it. Her listeners laughed in all the right places, but there I was — dare I say it? — speechless. In 30 seconds, I would be in front of that eager group. Dumbstruck, I thought about fainting, but I'm no wimp. The light bulb flashed as I decided to tell those professional secretaries how to get registered and enroll in college classes. Each could then be the boss. It never occurred to me they liked being secretaries. I was one for years, and it is a stressful job. I didn't receive a standing ovation (darn!).  That wasn't the worst experience I've had though.  

I was to speak in Fayetteville. The auditorium at the high school was filled with folks waiting to hear me present a one-day writing workshop. The night before the session, my husband and I had stayed in a nearby motel where neighbors partied until early morning. I didn't sleep. The next day, while being introduced, I leaned on the maroon velvet curtain, the kind that most school auditoriums have. Of course, it didn't hold my weight, so I fell to the floor of the stage. The audience (they knew me from the previous year's workshop) burst into uncontrollable laughter. The person introducing me had to stop because she couldn't control her laughter either. Unharmed, I arose as gracefully as possible under the circumstances, walked to the front of the stage and told the audience to remember when they evaluated me at day's end that I had fallen for them. At the conclusion of the session, I learned my audience thought I had fallen on purpose — just to break the ice — their words. 

Most folks fear public speaking only second to death itself, and I can tell you that pretending the members of the audience are naked doesn't help. I remember the first time I was to give a workshop several years ago. As stressed as most people would be, I began my preparation by getting, not just one fever blister, but a whole cluster. Then, I got bronchitis a week before I was to speak to a group of CPAs (they are no-nonsense folks). I thought I would have to whisper, but I was determined not to cancel. One does not cancel workshops. The tension affected me in other strange ways. I was just barely pretty enough to be standing before an audience anyway when my left eyebrow began to disappear. Each morning there was less and less until it vanished altogether. I decided my eyeglasses would hide the blank space, and I could carry on. Then, on the morning of the workshop, I arose and looked in the mirror. My eyebrow had reappeared, only this time it was just above my upper lip.  

If you are, or plan to be, a public speaker, be prepared to meet a few bumps in the road — as the beautiful people might say.