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    Would You Like Some Water With those Cotton Balls?

    Laura Bradford Icon

    I remember the first time like it was yesterday.

    The nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach… The way my tongue slid across my lips (over and over and over again)… The slight tremor in my hands… The pounding in my chest… The ever-increasing heat in the room…

    Ahhhhhh, yes. The joys of public speaking.

    My “first time” was with a handful of people known as the St. Louis Chapter of Sisters in Crime. And, truth be told, I knew the vast majority of the people in the room on a first name basis. The evening’s topic—Catching The Eye Of The Media–was one I was well versed in thanks to my days as a working journalist. So really, it should have been a walk in the park to stand in front of that room and talk, right?


    After I got through the above mentioned litany of issues, I opened my mouth to, you know, speak, and nearly choked. Why? Because somehow, in the time it took me to walk from my chair to the speaker’s table, someone crammed a bag of cotton balls down my throat. Big, fluffy ones. That expanded with each word I spoke.

    Truly, it was one of those life experiences I’d not choose to relive anytime soon. But I got through it (as did my poor, pitiful audience). I even remembered to use the visual aids I brought and to pass out the cool tip sheets I’d assembled in the week leading up to my virginal talk.

    Looking back, it wasn’t as awful as I thought. People listened and asked some really good questions. Several even went so far as to engage me in conversation afterward (preferable to avoiding eye contact and rushing the door).

    It was a hurdle. And I’d jumped it. Granted it wasn’t with the kind of grace I would have liked, but it wasn’t bad… For my first time.

    Fast forward to last week.

    I was asked to speak to a group of about fifty people, a sea of unfamiliar faces with no connection to the writing world whatsoever. When I was introduced, I walked over to the podium and spoke into that microphone with a confidence I’ve never had before. There was no tremor in my hand, no pounding in my chest, no butterflies in my stomach, no desire to start shedding layers, and no lip licking. I had them laughing from the first words I uttered, firing questions left and right when I was done.

    And I had absolutely no idea who I was at that moment. Certainly not the same Laura who stood in front of that Sisters in Crime chapter eighteen months ago trying desperately to remember to inhale and exhale in an alternating pattern.

    Sure, I’ve got a long way to go before the public speaking circuit comes knocking at my door. But that’s okay. The point is, I’ve gotten better over time. Much better.

    Public speaking, book signings, conferences, maneuvering unfamiliar cities, meeting new people…it’s all part of a strange new journey for me. A journey that’s taken me out of the known and dropped me smack in the middle of the unknown.

    And you know what? It was in the middle of that unknown that I finally found me.


    **It doesn’t matter what profession you’re in–at some point you have to talk in front of a group of people. So how do you do it? What works/doesn’t work for you? And if you’ve got a less-than-stellar speaking moment you care to share, we’d all love to hear it (misery loves company and all that stuff).

    11 Responses to “Would You Like Some Water With those Cotton Balls?”

    1. Sometimes, I find public speaking easier than small talk. For a speaking engagement, you can design what you are going to say. If while concocting your words, you find that something doesn’t sound quite right, you can edit (love that backspace key). Not so when conversing. Making small talk doesn’t involve the planning and preparation. There’s no script. You have to be on your toes. That’s where I get cotton balls. There’s so much pressure to think of the “right thing to say”. Sometimes, I just want to shout to my imaginary director, “Line, please!” That’s where those voices would come in handy.

      by Beth on August 22nd, 2006 at 8:39 am

    2. Yep, this is a tough gig for introspective writer types. We like to live in our heads–this getting out in the real world and talking to living breathing PEOPLE can be disconcerting.

      Two things have made my Authorial Life easier–although initially they made my life hell: teaching high school (you want to talk about a tough crowd? Let’s talk spoiled suburban teens on crack) and being in a band for about 15 years. Between those two worlds, I think I’ve had pretty much every bad stage experience you could have, from being groped to barely whisking my feet out of the line of vomit in time.

      by Diana Killian on August 22nd, 2006 at 11:03 am

    3. Laura, I think most authors are the quiet, shy type so public speaking is definitely hard. I don’t shake anymore in front of a group, but I’m definitely not comfortable, and I tend to ramble on and on and on. Imagine. :)

      You need to teach me some tricks!

      Beth, I wish those voices would help me during public speaking. Oddly enough, they’re verrrrry quiet while I’m making a fool out of myself!

      by Heather Webber on August 22nd, 2006 at 11:05 am

    4. Beth, I get that wishing you had a script stuff. I think that’s why I’m a writer. I communicate better through the written word than the spoken word. I loved the high school note-passing stuff. THAT I could do.

      Diana, it’s funny but I found that to be one of the most disconcerting things about the past year. Sure, I like people, but have always been more comfortable in smaller groups. Once I got published and realized I had to talk in front of people (talks/panels, workshops)it was like…”Excuse me? What do I have to do? No one said anything about this part.”

      Since I posted this blog I had some interesting feedback on my talk from last week. I was dropping off my girls at school today (they started last week) and I saw this guy looking at me. He looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t place him. He finally walked over and said, “Did you talk to the XXX group last week?” I responded with, “Oh God.” He looked surprised and said, “No! You were really good.” So I guess it’s coming along. I certainly enjoy it more now.

      by Laura on August 22nd, 2006 at 11:10 am

    5. Heather, I’ve seen you talk. You’re funny and the audience responds. But, it’s nice to know others have gone through the shaking stage.

      by Laura on August 22nd, 2006 at 11:12 am

    6. They say public speaking generally trumps death as our number one fear in life. Makes you wonder about our priorities, doesn’t it?

      Having heard you speak a time or two, I’d have to say…an elegant charm, a gentle wit, a quiet radiance that warms but never burns, and a message worth receiving.

      That’s what you offer an audience when you speak.

      And that’s what you bring to the page when you write.

      I’d say that’s a pretty nifty place to find yourself.

      And a wonderful place to take others.

      by Joe on August 22nd, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    7. Awwwwww………


      Thanks, Joe.

      by Laura on August 22nd, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    8. I’m definitely with you, Laura, on the talking to groups of people. I’d rather not, but the funny thing is that the more I’ve done it, the easier it gets. Let me rephrase—it’s not easy, but I’m getting better at it and I feel more comfortable. In the last year I’ve used every scrap of info I can remember from my junior high and high school speech classes—probably the most useful classes I had!

      by Sara Rosett on August 22nd, 2006 at 4:09 pm

    9. I make sure not to wear pants.

      by guyot on August 22nd, 2006 at 6:50 pm

    10. Sara, I took a speech class in college. Don\’t remember much about it except that I enjoyed watching everyone else (at least the creative ones) and hated when it was my turn. But yeah, it does get easier over time.

      Paul, what to say, what to say… I guess if it works for you, go with it. 

      by Laura on August 22nd, 2006 at 10:28 pm

    11. Great post, Laura!

      I was a theatre geek in high school, so being in front of an audience doesn’t bother me, but sometimes I do wish I had a script.

      Hadn’t thought of trying guyot’s trick of not wearing pants.

      by Tasha Alexander on August 25th, 2006 at 6:56 am

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