Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My fears of public speaking

I used to be very comfortable speaking in public. Did it all the time. In fact, I was a regular guest on Pittsburgh morning radio and on a popular panel TV show.
I’ve taught college classes, have spoken to writers’ groups and once addressed more than 200 people at a Manhattan awards ceremony where I was a guest of honor for a series of stories I wrote about people struggling with dystonia.
That’s why recent anxieties about public speaking left me unnerved.
Because I’m intending to do a lot more of it.
On its face, that last statement will alarm my family and my friends at the bar, my core demographics and the ones who think I never shut up.
They fail to understand a key difference between public speaking and drunken babbling.
Public speaking requires some wit, monetary incentive and an alert audience eager for entertainment or information.
For me to babble drunkenly, all I need is booze and people with ears who prefer hearing me incoherently yap at the tavern to being home and hearing a sober spouse complain about their shortcomings.
But I have a new book coming out and I plan on reaching out to every civic group in Western Pennsylvania who’ll be interested in hearing how a guy who can’t help himself is now a self-help author -- you can check out the still-evolving website,
So the stakes are high. 
I want every appearance to be polished and entertaining, an oratorical home run.
It wasn’t last week on a Michigan radio show, which I’m regarding as more of a foul out. I’m friends with Michael Patrick Shiels, host of a lively program syndicated on 10 different stations across the state. Recent guests include Mitt Romney, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and me.
Michael couldn’t have been more generous with his introduction. I remember listening and thinking, wow, this guy’s gonna be good -- and I’ll bet he’s handsome, too. It was so flattering that when he started asking me live questions about my book I responded with dumbfounded silence.
I kept waiting for the brilliant man he’d introduced to speak up and say something intelligent.
That guy was a no-show.
I was so choppy and awkward I’m convinced my old friend won’t have me on again until I heroically land a packed jumbo jet liner on the Hudson River.
The result? I had just one guy get in touch after the show asking me to send him a free copy of the book, which I happily did for reasons stated here.
It shook my confidence.
That’s why I felt relief the other night at a gathering of about 100 international journalists and Pittsburgh big shots when the microphone seemed to safely pass me by.
The Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and Visit Pittsburgh brought these distinguished journalists from as far as Spain and Germany to Pittsburgh to learn why the only color becoming more dominant than Black 'n' Gold is green.
The David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Consol Energy Center, and other dazzling new downtown structures have embraced green technologies in ways that are being hailed around the globe. Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is unveiling the new Center for Sustainable Landscapes, which ingeniously produces all its own renewable energy and waters its lush gardens solely on water captured and treated on site.
It’s is among the greenest buildings on earth, quite a feat considering it earns the designation over thousands of other places that have an advantage of starting out being called “green” houses.
And I’m busting with pride that Pittsburgh is its home.
I just didn’t want to have to say it through an amplifier at the Monday evening reception.
We were on the spectacular 12th floor porch of the Reed Smith building, adjacent to the new Fairmont Hotel in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle. I was standing with fellow freelance writer Chris O’Toole, the kind of journalist I want to be when I grow up (I’ll be 50 in February so any day now)
Her credentials include bylines in many of the world’s most prestigious publications. She’s poised, classy and beloved by all.
My most impressive credential at the time was I was standing next to her.
The MC, Pittsburgh TV personality Bill Flanagan, concluded his chipper opening remarks and asked each of the visiting journalists to introduce themselves and offer a little background. Happily, he and the mic passed right by Chris and I.
I felt a huge surge of relief. I wouldn’t have to address the crowd.
And what a distinguished group it was. It included a reporter for The New York Times and representatives from many other renown publications who’ve been rejecting my inferior work for years.
I joked to Chris it was a good thing they passed us by because all I’d have to say is, “I’m Chris Rodell and I need more wine!”
And that was true. When the wine is free, I could just stand there and drink myself into a giddy little puddle. Free from concerns about having to speak, I was having a splendid time.
That’s why I almost dropped my glass when Flanagan said, “And, finally, we’d like to introduce two outstanding local journalists, Chris O’Toole and Chris Rodell!”
If we’d have just been about four stories lower, I’d have jumped off the building and made a run for it.
I don’t recall a single word she said, but I’m sure it was brilliant.
And I don’t recall a single word I said either, which is a pity because it, too, was apparently brilliant.
I was the last speaker, the clean-up hitter. As fate had it, mine were the valedictory remarks of the evening and I somehow pulled it off.
The reaction couldn’t have been better. Prominent Pittsburghers kept coming up to me to thank me for my heartfelt gush. Fellow reporters sought my acquaintance. 
I tried to think of why the results of these two episodes of public speaking differed so widely; one a failure, the other a success.
For one, I was prepared and had a list of talking points at the ready.
For the other, it was completely extemporaneous. 
After careful consideration, I blame the apparent sobriety of Michigan residents who listen to the radio at 8:30 a.m. Tough crowd.
It wasn’t like that on that scenic Pittsburgh porch. 
You see, I wasn’t the only guy there enjoying lots of free wine.
The results have me considering altering my business model for selling my book. To heck with rubber chicken dinner talks before Western Pennsylvania civic groups.
Napa Valley, here I come!


Unknown said...

I don't happen to listen to this particular radio show, but here in Ann Arbor we don't start drinking until closer to 10:00AM...

Chris Rodell said...

Thanks! I'll keep that in mind next time some producer offers me some airtime.

Good to hear from you!