It’s just like me to check out some of these Daily Post daily prompts, pick a prompt I want to create a response to, think it’ll be a real quick one to answer, and then take days to come up with a post that’ll knock
my everyone’s socks off (that’s one of the reasons I call it “Allison’s Not-Quite-Daily Daily Writing Challenge”). But at least DP gives prompts that do really strike a chord with me, such as this one they sent out a few days ago:
“Tell us about a talent you’d love to have… but don’t.”
Well, while the response has been hard for me to compose, the answer for me is an obvious one: I’d love to have the ability to impress people when presenting myself. No, I don’t mean presenting myself as a female. I mean making a professional presentation to others, be it in a speech, a phone call, or even a simple one-on-one conversation, especially to total strangers. I am horrible at making a presentation, and I wish I wouldn’t freeze up so easily when having to do so (hence the title of this post).
Certainly, my fear of public speaking is a result of my general shyness to others, but I believe my tendency to freeze up like this started as far back as the 5th grade, where at one point late in the school year, we were each charged to make a “commercial” for a totally made-up product. We had to create the product, write the script (which was graded for spelling and grammar, by the way), even block out how our presentation went, selecting classmates to join in if we wanted to. Yep, we had to do everything short of operating the video camera. That’s right, a video camera. And that’s where the terror comes in…
I recall this one episode of The Brady Bunch where youngest daughter Cindy earned a spot on one of those televised academic quiz bowl competitions. Cindy was all bravado and confidence in the lead-up to the competition, but when the cameras started rolling, she fell silent; she literally stared at the camera and froze up, saying virtually nothing. When I went in front of that camera — and in front of the rest of the class — to do my commercial (which was for a “carpet freshener,” for what it’s worth), I didn’t freeze up as rigidly as Cindy Brady did in that episode, but I hemmed and hawed and stammered and stuttered while I dumped that fake freshener on the carpet and swept it up to give it “that clean, fresh smell.” Needless to say, it wasn’t fun watching myself on video the next day (black and white equipment and videotape, by the way; it’s what the school could afford). Most of the rest of the class seemed to be more confident and relaxed — and, dare I say, prepared — before the camera. I, however, looked as terrified on camera as I had felt, with all my preparation from the night before being reading and re-reading my script — but not reading it out loud.
That 5th grade incident was only my first nightmare before the camera, however. The next one I can recall occurred a few years later in my 8th grade English class. Our family had just relocated to Northern Wisconsin before the school year began, and I was still trying to adjust to a new school with new faces and new teachers. I think it was around the middle of my 8th grade year when our English teacher told the class we would each have to present speeches before the rest of the class, with subject matter of our own choosing. (Each speech had to have a different subject, and I’ll only say my subjects were sports-related.) Notice how I use “speeches” and not “speech,” as this lesson came in three waves: The first speech was a traditional written-out style, while we had to rely on note cards as only an occasional guide for the second speech.
Now, I did okay in my first speech, never taking my eyes away from my writing as I stood at the lectern (okay, more like a music stand borrowed from the music department, but you get the idea). My second speech performance was a little bit of a downgrade; I admit I wrote out that entire speech on my note cards, but looking up from them and staring at the class made me somewhat nervous. The third speech, however… Ugh. I even hate to talk about it here, but I’ll go ahead… The third time around, each of our presentations were videotaped. [cue suspenseful music] And not only did we have to speak directly at the camera, we had do do it off of memory.
Now, I am not very good at memorizing things, so I really had to do a crash course in instant recall of a speech. We only had about 3 days or so to compose our speech, write it down, and write it to memory. I spent most of the night before my speech and nearly every waking moment the morning of it writing, rewriting, reading, and re-reading my speech, which had to go at least 2 minutes and no more than 4 minutes.
The preparation actually helped. Well, it helped drive the speech to memory, anyway; I read that thing until it was literally an imprint on my brain. As far as enunciation and such, not so much. I was uncomfortable rehearsing it in front of my mom or sister, or for that matter a classmate (I expected no one at school would be a willing initial audience). When I did deliver my speech — in front of that camera’s unblinking eye — I did a lot of stammering and hawing, but I remembered most of the words I had written down.
A day or two later, when we all saw the videotape of our speeches, well… I sweated even more bullets watching my speech than I did delivering it, and I felt worse than that 5th grade presentation. The teacher thought I did okay. Most of the rest of the class thought I did okay. I thought I did horribly. I hated it so much I broke down and averted my gaze from the TV screen. And when the teacher read our anonymous self-criticisms or our speeches, the snickers the others let out when she read mine didn’t help my psyche and self-confidence.
To this day, I still wish I hadn’t had to recite that speech before the camera in 8th grade. I knew what that lesson was trying to impart on each of us — the importance of building communication skills — but that didn’t mean I had to like it. At least the memory of that speech was still in my mind a decade later when I had to perform a similar speech in technical college. To brush up our interviewing skills (which are important, of course, when it comes to nailing down a job), we had to perform a self-summary of ourselves before the camera. I didn’t hem and haw as much, and I certainly didn’t have an emotional breakdown afterwards, but I think what helped me was that I paid no mind to the camera, not for a single second. I was presenting to everybody else in the room, not the camera before me, even though I should have treated that unblinking eye as if it was the person interviewing me. I think it helped, too, that the instructor went over our performances with us individually, rather than showing the tape to everyone in class (I truly appreciate her doing that).
Recalling those experiences and understanding my shy disposition, I am of the belief that I am much more effective presenting myself when… well, when I’m not displaying myself. What I mean is I am much better at the written word, in my opinion, instead of presenting a speech or having words come out of my mouth for others to pick up on. If I’m writing an e-mail or other correspondence at work, I think I’m more comfortable doing that rather than working the phones and offering products and services to customers who may be more judgmental and dismissive than that English teacher that had us stand before a camera.
Does that “printed word” type of confidence transfer to how I present my feminine side? Well, I suppose it does. Or, maybe showing my feminine side online (through this blog, on Twitter, on Flickr, etc.) allows my male mode to have at least a modicum of self-confidence. It’s just that my mind has to learn how to transfer that feminine self-confidence to my professional life, so that I can make a good impression and not have to worry and fret… and hammer and haw. (“If I don’t impress this interviewer in the next hour, my chances to get this job are blown to heck.”)
Of course, wearing a dress and a wig, snapping photos, and putting them online can only get me so far. I know I have to find some way to effectively communicate to others if and when the professional need arises. At least at this point of my day-to-day work life, I don’t have to work the phones too often. But, of course, I understand I may need more of that verbal self-confidence in the future. My male side has his job credentials online, put out there as feelers for the next big thing that may be around the corner. However, most of those feelers are picked up by those who have a salesperson position available. (“Put in those calls! Meet new people! Sell great products! Make big commissions!”) Yeah, sales is not my background, I’m afraid; I’m still much more professionally comfortable making those cogs and sprockets turn behind the big curtains.
So, I hope I can learn to take the experiences learned from those awful speeches as a kid, combine it with the positive experiences I have gained professionally, fuse it together with the self-confidence gained as Allison, and go out there and impress others when I take that next speakers’ podium/interview room/etc. that will eventually come my way — whether I’m ready for it or not.