Why I’m not afraid to speak in public

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007
A potential client called me this week and asked if I would be interested in delivering an eProductivity seminar to a very large audience in Asia. I told him I was. He seemed most interested to know if I was comfortable speaking to a very large audience - like 5,000-8,000 people. I said that I was and I shared that I had a life-changing event many many years ago that gave me great comfort speaking in front of large audiences. Here's what happened...

When I was young, I lived in Mons, Belgium and attended the Belgian section of L'Ecole Internationale du SHAPE. Through an interesting set of circumstances, I had the opportunity to participate with the American High School in their preparation to attend the Model UN at the The Hague, Netherlands. The  Model United Nations is a wonderful political/government and speech/debate program intended for High School students which culminates in a one-week general assembly of the Model United Nations. For six months to a year, each school prepares by studying all about their assigned country (we were assigned Ethiopia) with the goal of learning all about the political, economical, and social issues affecting their country. They then prepare to serve on the many committees of the UN and to debate the various issues of the day.  (At the time, Ethiopia was being attacked by Somalia.) Approximately 3,000 people attended the event that I went to in 1978 and part of the event was televised across Europe.

Eric's Denim Suit for the Model UN, circa 1978My team chose me to deliver the opening speech for our delegation, which I readily agreed to do. For weeks I rehearsed and I got everything ready. I even got a this suit, my first suit as a young man - a three-piece denim suit. (What can I say? It was 1978 and Disco was cool in Europe. Look at the width of those bell bottom flairs.)  

After months of preparation, our team travelled from our home town of Mons, Belgium to The Hague, Netherlands for the event. During the opening speeches, a representative from each delegation was invited to address the assembly. I was nervous. I also had too much water to drink. Not a good combination. I approached the podium, greeted the President of the General Assembly and the Secretary General of the UN and I prepared to address the audience. Then it happened. I wet my pants. Fortunately, thanks to the dark blue denim, no one noticed. By the grace of God I did not panic, in fact I was actually relaxed. I decided to put everything I had into my delivery of the opening speech.  I lowered and raised my voice for dramatic effect at the appropriate times and I slammed my fist on the podium to get attention or to make a point. But, I never moved from behind the podium. After my allotted 5 minutes, I returned to my delegation to a tremendous round of applause from them, from the UN congress, and from my mom, who had travelled from the United States to watch me speak. I felt wonderful, I had a warm feeling in my heart. I decided that I liked this public speaking thing a lot. In fact, I liked it so much that I've never shied away from a speaking engagement since. I've had many wonderful speaking opportunities in the decades since, but never one as memorable or as life-changing as that one.

While  this could have been an embarrassing moment for me, it was actually a tremendous moment of accomplishment and one I reflect on often. In fact, whenever people ask, "don't you get nervous speaking in public?" I tell them, "why should I? I was nervous once but I got over it quickly..."

I love public speaking and delight in sharing what I've learned with audiences, large and small.

In the past thirty years, I've learned many valuable lessons of public speaking that have served me well; key are to: limit my water intake and visit the men's room before speaking and to always look at my shoes before I walk on stage.

PS.  Unfortunately, other than my certificate of participation and the photo below, I have no photos or recordings of the event. I did, however, manage to find this very faded mimeograph copy of my speech. 19780204_EricsModelUNSpeech.pdf  PDF text transcript

Discussion/Comments (7):

Also a strange reason why I’m not afraid

I'm not a good public speaker, but at least I'm not afraid of doing it. Largest audience till now is some 500 people, but I'm quite sure I wouldn't mind 5000 either.

The reason? A debating contest at a student fraternity. The first two rounds were late at night, with just 30 people attending or so. No problem. The third round was during a bigger meeting with 100 people or so attending. That would normally be quite frightening to me. My luck? It was in a theater and they aimed a Big Bright Searchlight on the podium. So I couldn't see a single audience member.

But I did, in fact, speak in front of a 100 people :-) As they didn't eat me alive, I got over my possible initial fear.


Posted at 06/26/2007 13:50:40 by Reinout van Rees

Why I’m not afraid to speak in public

I enjoyed reading this Eric. Especially having experienced model UN myself back in college. My most terrifying public speaking moment was at my first model UN at Harvard and I was one of the first up to give a speech on a topic I had NO idea what the heck I was talking about. I swear the audience could hear my heart pounding through the microphone. It's amazing I ever got up in front of an audience again!

Posted at 06/26/2007 16:50:52 by Kelly

re: Also a strange reason why I’m not afraid

Reinout, I had a similar experience once. I had to deliver a speech at Edwards Air Force Base in the early 1980's. I was presenting with General Pete Odgers, then commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center and we were introducing the new personal computers (this was pre-IBM PC). The presentation took place in the base movie theatre and there were about 700 people in attendance. Because they ware also simulcasting my presentation to Hill Air Force base they had lots of studio lights and they told me to stand in a small square box on the stage marked off by masking tape. With the darkness of the theater and the fact that I had studio lights shining on me, I could not see anyone in the dark. And, since I could not walk around freely, I lost my ability to connect with the audience. It was awkward. No, it was a disaster.

Fortunately, one of my staff realized what was going on and told the director to turn off the stage lights and turn on the house lights. Once I could see the audience I was fine again and delivered a great presentation. Lesson #2 - never present in the dark when you cannot see the audience.


Posted at 06/27/2007 11:08:09 by Eric Mack

re: Why I’m not afraid to speak in public

Indeed, Kelly, Model UN was a fantastic opportunity and one that impacted both of us. I've seen you present. I think you're great at it. I'm glad you did not let that one experience discourage you. Best regards, Eric

Posted at 06/27/2007 11:08:29 by Eric Mack

Why I’m not afraid to speak in public

Hi Eric!

With you, the lights worked the other way around. It helped me, it made your speech harder. Funny.

You're totally right about the need to connect to your audience. Pretty hard for me to do; it might be one of the biggest reasons why I think my presentations could be much better. I don't fear giving them, but there's always the knowledge that the presentation won't be real good.

Ah well, I never put much effort in *learning* to give great speeches, so that just says I'm no natural. Hm. Might have to do something about that. Any tips on how you learned to give great presentations?


Posted at 06/29/2007 11:03:34 by Reinout van Rees

re: Why I’m not afraid to speak in public

Reinout, I enjoy speaking publicly and motivating people. I enjoy listening to great speakers. I would start with listening to good speakers and watching good presentations - not necessarily to copy what they do but to see what is effective. You might also consider joining a Toasmaster's club.

Posted at 06/30/2007 11:29:45 by Eric Mack

Why I’m not afraid to speak in public

Hey Eric, nice interesting blog, i'm very afraid to speak front of others, i never participate in seminars, but after i read your blog i have planned to participate in seminars, i will try my level best, lets see.....

Posted at 11/05/2007 1:06:43 by Sharon Silvea

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