For me, the answer was look at your notes and speak slowly, imagining a toddler curled up beside you listening to her bedtime story instead of the room full of sharply dressed financial decision makers expecting an eloquent epilogue before they pull out their checkbooks.
Allow me to explain.
I have been working with Northwest Counseling and the Mentoring Center of Central Ohio for the last 5 years, volunteering as a mentor, speaking at new mentor orientations, and attempting to recruit new volunteers. Over the years, I've received a "Commended Mentor" award at a ritzy dinner at the capital building (which included meeting Archie Griffin, and also receiving an award by proxy for AEP and posing for a publicity photo with a group of financial contributors, since the scheduled representative for AEP was double booked), attended events such as "family fun day" at the RPAC rec center at OSU, participated with my mentee, Dave, in building houses with Habitat for Humanity and attended their celebration events, received free tickets to museums and sporting events... it's been a lot of fun. My visibility in the organization has increased over time, and they turn to me and Dave more now for an example of what a good mentoring relationship looks like, the effect on the life of an at-risk child a mentor can have, and, recently, as a spokesman.
I have never prided myself on public speaking. I can read stories to kids, teach classes to groups of 20 or less on subjects I have expertise in, participate in group discussions of the book club/church group variety, and lately I've expanded to conducting an awards ceremony for 11 girls and their families on the soccer team I coached this fall season. But that's it as far as speaking in public goes, and the last one nearly gave me a panic attack. What I was subjected to last month, however, nearly had me give up the ghost.
A couple months ago, I got a phone call from my contact at Northwest Counseling asking if I would be interested in speaking at Columbus State Community College at a breakfast to talk about my work with Dave over the years. "Yeah, sure," says I. Over the next month, I interacted with a couple other people from the Mentoring Center to go over what I would say. I submitted a rough draft of my talking points to them, and they turned that into vaguely corny prose that I planned to clean up ad lib at the podium. Everything was swell, and I thought it odd that they went through this much trouble instead of just asking me to show up and speak off the cuff, like I do at new mentor orientations.
In reality, I had not received a crucial piece of information that would have put everything in perspective, possibly changing my original "yeah, sure" answer to something else: the target audience. My assumption was that I would be speaking to students at Columbus State at a recruiting drive. They would be disinterested, eating their food, texting, looking at their watches, and bolting for the door when the event was over.
The event was nothing like that. No, it was a fundraiser with various local businesses with big philanthropy budgets.
Dave and I showed up wearing what we normally do on days we go out, jeans, sneakers, what have you, and when we got to the building we noticed that there were no college students milling about, but lots of people in business wear. Very nice, tailored business wear. Ties with perfect Windsors with a nice dimple in the middle, nothing that looked off the rack, polished shoes, the whole 9 yards. All told there were around 50 - 75 people in the room.
So we start out looking like we don't fit in, and then I find out that Dave and I are the last speakers before the closer, meaning whatever we have to say will be ringing fresh in all the CFO ears in the room when they decide how much they want to contribute to mentoring in Columbus. I was nervous. Not nervous like my car is sliding on the ice nervous, or asking for a raise nervous, or the first time the wife sees you nekkid nervous, or even the choking on stage nervous. This was a recurrence of the deep inner conflict that I struggle with on occasion: Am I one of them? Am I in their league? My being dressed casual to the counterpoint of their business dress only added fuel to the fire. Who am I trying to fool? These people can see that I'm a big flake, putting on airs like I think I'm worth some kind of respect instead of fetching their water.
So I got up to the microphone, and most of the panic came over me in a wave, and I had to close my eyes and breathe for a few seconds. I didn't recite the litany against fear from Dune, and I didn't have a magical hallucination of Stacey smiling at me and saying "I believe in you, daddy," or anything like that. I just calmed myself down a little, tried not to think about the large crowd staring at me, and stuck mainly to the notes. I spoke, I got through it without choking, and I received a smattering of polite applause.
Dave, being younger and not having self-worth tied to his performance at the breakfast, did much better... "Um, yeah, I'm Dave, I've been hangin' with Curtis for a long time now, he's cool...." He helped me relax, and we had some comic banter during his speech. "Curtis, how come you didn't invite me to your wedding?" Me with a shocked look, "Hey! We eloped! It was just the two of us," to much laughter and nice round of applause when he finished and we took our seats again. The confidence of youth for the win.
I still don't know if I'm "one of them", and I took a lesson from Dave in his brazenly being true to himself, "and if that ain't good enough for you, sit on it" approach to life. That's who I was at his age, and my trying to conform and be accepted, the very thing I railed against in my own youth, managed to creep its way deep into my soul. Thanks for helping me understand that, man, and for the reminder of who I'm really supposed to be. Sure, I'll speak again if I'm asked to, I'll even ask who the audience is and dress appropriately, but I'll stick to just telling my story in a way that's good enough for me, not for them. They'll either like it or they won't. They'll either accept me or not, and I'll still love myself the same way regardless of the outcome.
The final result? After the breakfast was winding down, I went around and said my goodbyes to the people in the room I knew, and several people in the audience went out of their way to grab me and Dave and shake our hands, and tell us how much our story meant to them. A few weeks later, I received a letter from a Mentoring Center contact on their official letterhead saying how happy they were with what I did, and the effect the story had on everyone, and at least one of the attendees saying it was her favorite part of the event. The letter came with a nice gift card to a local restaurant, where Dave and I will be hanging out this weekend.
Moral of the story? Being yourself wins the day. Dave's apathy to the audience, and them seeing us interact in a way that was honest, natural, and funny, was the sell. He mentioned casually that he wouldn't be in as good shape as he is now without a mentor who stuck with him. Nothing I could have said, no amount of rehearsing, getting clothes pressed, relaxation exercises, practice in front of large crowds, triumphing over inner demons, none of that would have trumped this one simple idea. "Here I am, happy and alive, and here is a big part of why."
Right back at you, Dave.