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Four Fears: Public Speaking, part I

Four Fears: Public Speaking, part I

Four Fears


In 1990, after I learned I had AIDS, I decided I did not want to die afraid. I made a list of everything I was afraid of—

  • Water
  • Public Speaking
  • Heights
  • Spiders


And I overcame each fear. Over the next few days, I will tell you how (and I will pick a piece of music to listen to that has something to do with either the fear itself or with overcoming it). Yesterday, I wrote about water; today, I will write about public speaking



Why I Was Afraid of Public Speaking


Most people are afraid to stand up in front of other people to speak. Studies show, shockingly, that people fear public speaking more than they fear death. I was no different than anyone else, but I was required to speak in front of others. Before I came out, I was allowed to be part of the Mormon church. Members of that church are expected to speak in meetings from time to time, and I did my part, and I did all right.


But something happened to me once, when speaking in church, that complicated public speaking for me. It began with my accent. Everyone has an accent, though we can't really hear it in ourselves—until, that is, we are removed or we remove ourselves from the region where most people speak just like us. This happened to me when I left home for college at Brigham Young University (BYU), in Provo, Utah. I was twenty-one years old. My first semester at BYU, I was called to be Executive Secretary to the Bishop of my student ward, or congregation: and, shortly, I was asked to speak in church, and, since the Sunday when I was supposed to speak happened to be close to President's Day in February, I was asked to speak about George Washington, and his role in the founding of America (which Mormons believe was inspired by God). I did extensive research and found many uplifting stories to relate about the President and his life: more, in fact, that I could ever use in the allotted time. Sunday arrived, my time to speak came, and I began my talk.


Back to my accent: southeastern Idaho (where I was born and raised) has preserved a dialect and an accent of English as it was spoken in England in the 1880s. This sort of thing is common around the world: when people immigrate to another country, they typically lose everything except they way they spoke at home: it is the last thing they can cling to from there—and these ways of speaking tend to persist for a long time, down through generations. My native dialect of English, therefore, diverges from the standard in several ways, including that the words "car" and "war" are exact rhymes. So, when I spoke of the Revolutionary War, for example, my accent, though understandable, was different from that common to those in the audience. Someone chuckled. Then someone laughed. Then more laughed, and more joined in.


I did not know what was wrong. I was standing in front of a podium, so my zipper couldn't be the issue. I had checked my look in a mirror before church started—I looked fine. But the laughter continued, and soon I had over 200 people laughing at me. No one helped me. I turned to ask my bishop what was wrong and saw that even he had been laughing. I stopped my talk, gathered up my papers and my scriptures, and walked out.


How does one recover from something like that? Or find again the courage to speak in public?


My roommate, who had been a missionary with me in Brazil, followed me home and told me he thought that everyone had laughed because of the way I spoke. So I changed the way I talked. I learned to hear the differences between standard English and how I was speaking, and I adopted the standard. (This led to other problems. When I next visited home, and unthinkingly spoke with a standard English accent, my father was furious. "I knew you'd put on airs if you went to college!" he shouted at me [who knew that people still used the phrase "put on airs"!]. So I learned to speak one way in Utah and another way at home.)


But in just a few years, I had to learn to speak not just on a local level, but on national and international stages.


To be continued . . .



Selected Composition


Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime"



Program Notes


I wouldn't normally think to look for existentialism in popular music, but Brian Eno, the lead singer of Talking Heads, wrote an existential song in his 1981 "Once in a Lifetime." I always thought this song was mysterious, and a little creepy: the lyrics talk about waking up one day in a beautiful house, with a beautiful car outside, with a beautiful wife—and thinking: none of this is mine! How did I get here? This was written ten years before the movie Total Recall, which is, of course, about a man waking up in a house and with a wife he doesn't recognize. Apparently Eno intended none of that: he meant his song to be about following accepted paths in life, and achieving expected things: but one day waking up and questioning all of it.


Here is a link to the song:


Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime"





I created "Sad Stories of the Death of Kings," the image above, in 2006. It is based on Mandelbrot Fractals. The title is from Shakespeare's Richard II, act 3, scene 2:

Nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.








Four Fears: Public Speaking, part II

Four Fears: Public Speaking, part II

Four Fears: Water

Four Fears: Water