I was standing at the lectern at Walnut City Hall, looking down at elected officials and community leaders. This was the Lions Club student speaker contest. The topic was “Water: Will California be left high and dry?” I raised and lowered my voice dramatically, adding hand motions for emphasis. I felt confident, even though I had written the speech the night before. I ended my speech with my arms raised dramatically in the air as I said, “If we don’t do something, in a couple years California will be the next great desert.”
Before I joined the speech and debate club, I would have been terrified to be standing where I was then. Speech and debate helped me overcome my fears of audiences and public speaking, and my fear of embarrassment. When you’re up there, everyone is judging you. I learned to ignore that.
The first time I spoke for an audience was in eighth grade. I stared at all those faces in my English class, thinking, “What do they want from me?” I was talking about why countries should use nuclear power. I couldn’t stop shaking. Twice, my teacher had to tell me, “Speak up, son.” My cheeks turned red and I wished I could disappear.
That summer I saw a politician giving a speech on TV. He seemed so at ease. I thought, “If only I could do that.” Then I thought, “It shouldn’t be that hard. Everybody talks, all you have to do is get up there and talk.”
I wanted to be more confident
When I got to high school, I joined the speech and debate club. I had always imagined speech and debate like something from the movies. There would be sharply dressed people in suits countering everyone else’s arguments. That was what I wanted to do. All my life I had been insecure because I was teased and bullied when I was younger. I didn’t want to be afraid of what others thought anymore.
I chose speech over debate. There was a tournament coming up in less than two weeks so I was already competing. The high school league lets you choose your topic. The speech captain told me to write a speech that was relevant to modern society that was less than 10 minutes long and to write it like an essay. I was struggling because I had the freedom to write whatever I wanted to, but nothing came to mind. I banged my head on the table in frustration and swore, which gave me the idea to write about swearing.
Six hours later I had written my speech. Now I had to memorize it. I practiced in front of my bedroom mirror, saying the words over and over again. I kept playing back the worst scenarios in my head, like I would forget the words and freeze up.
The night before I was so nervous I barely slept. The tournament was divided into rounds, and each round was held in a room where you competed against four or five other speakers. Two people judged the speeches based on content and style. I was selected to speak first.
With my heart pounding I walked to the front of the room. I started off stuttering. I paused, took a breath and then I started easing into my speech. During the middle of the speech however, I stopped. I had forgotten the words. One second passed. Two seconds. The silence grew uncomfortable. My mind raced, scrambling to come up with the right words. Finally I found them. I finished my speech and sat down, relieved. When nothing happened, I realized that this fear of speaking was all in my head. People might stare at you or think badly of you, but in 10 minutes they would probably forget about it (after a while all the speeches sounded the same).
After that, I really started to get into it. To get better, I watched videos of the national high school champions, paying attention to things like body movement and tone, which was especially important because different tones indicated different emotions. A raised voice meant passion or anger. I also watched politicians on YouTube. From Bill Clinton I learned to talk to my audience no differently than I talked to my friends. From Martin Luther King Jr., I learned not to be afraid to be loud. From the videos, I learned to gesture to emphasize words.
From placing last in each round I moved up to fourth and third. Sophomore year I moved up to varsity. There’s this positive energy that comes from giving a good speech. People congratulate you, and there’s a part of you that goes, “ Wow, I did that?” It seemed silly that something that was so natural now, used to terrify me.
Nowadays, I’m more outgoing, and I’m not afraid to be funny or stupid. During band practices my friends and I sang “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys to girls walking by us. I’ll be the first to answer whenever there’s silence when the teacher asks a question, because I no longer care what people think of me.
I can use my speaking skills outside of competition
One of the greatest parts of public speaking is that you can make a difference. In November, my history teacher let me talk about a project I was starting to help the school. I said we needed to reach out to teens going through hard times. I was fighting back tears because I believed in what I was saying. Even though I had poured my heart into my speech, I was still surprised when people applied to join my group. I didn’t expect them to have time. I had inspired people to take action, and that meant something to me.
I’m no taller or smarter or more outgoing than anyone else. The only difference was that I was determined to make a difference in how I spoke. And I did.