Stopped at a house in my small Maine community to examine the wreaths displayed on a rack in the front yard. A friend had told me the price was right - $6.50, undecorated.
I rang the bell, money in hand, and waited. Then I tapped on the door, and finally I opened it and yoo-hooed. "I'm on my way!" a voice called.
After completing our wreath transaction, the woman asked, "Will you speak at a meeting of the Historical Society?" I didn't recall ever having met her before and was somewhat taken aback by her request.
"Speak to the Historical Society?" I echoed.
"Yes," she said. "Let me get my calendar, and I'll give you a date." Before I could demur, she retreated into the house. When she returned, I ventured to ask what she wanted me to speak on that would be of interest to the members of the Historical Society.
"Oh, you can talk about anything," she replied, thumbing through the calendar. "We need a speaker for Tuesday, Feb. 1. I'll put you down for that date." She must have known my name because she didn't ask for it.
I drove away with a wreath and a date to speak, wondering if this was how she filled her program roster - by simply signing on whoever showed up at her door.
As I pondered what I would talk about, I recalled a valuable lesson I had learned in public speaking. It had occurred while I was attending secretarial school in an elegant former private home in Boston's historic Back Bay neighborhood.
All the classes except Speech convened in what were once dining rooms, parlors, bedrooms, and libraries. Speech class was held in the Gold Ballroom. Every detail of the lavish interior of this magnificent room, reminiscent of Victorian opulence, became engraved on my mind during the semester I took Speech: mirrored walls, French windows shrouded in faded-gold velvet drapes fastened with tasseled cords, gilded cafe-style chairs, and a canopy of pink and white clouds floating in a concave ceiling of azure blue.
The way to the ballroom for late-1800s party-goers was by a sweeping marble staircase. For secretarial students, it was via the back stairs to a door that opened to the wide carpeted hallway leading to the ballroom.
The glorious splendor of this chamber coupled with Speech totally intimidated me. As a matter of fact, I wished I were anywhere but there because Speech meant only one thing - giving speeches. If there was anything in the world I liked to do less, I couldn't think what it might be.
Mrs. Barnes, who claimed to have taught actor Charles Boyer to speak English, conducted the class. She - with her no-nonsense manner and her fine gray hair caught in a bun at the nape of her neck - called, in alphabetical order, the names of the students. They, in turn, stood up to give their speeches. I waited with damp palms and dry mouth.
I could now count on one hand the students who had not yet given their talks: Miss Schacht, Miss Stetson, Miss Tompkins, Miss Upton, and me. I was among the last to be called, as always, because the first letter of my last name (Wardwell) was near the end of the alphabet. I found myself concentrating more intently on each talk, as if by hanging onto the words, I could somehow slow them down.
Dottie Schacht spoke on the secretary bird. "A most appropriate subject," Mrs. Barnes commented through thin lips. Dot Stetson was so frightened at the prospect of facing the class that Mrs. Barnes allowed her to speak with her back to the audience. The humor of Dot speaking to the closed, high double doors of the ballroom broke some of the tension. After the T's and U's, my name would be called.
"Miss Wardwell?" Mrs. Barnes's clipped voice roused me from my uneasy reverie. I made my way painstakingly to the front of the room and faced the student body without seeing anyone except Mrs. Barnes, seated by the marble fireplace. I avoided looking at her.
"Making hand-hooked rugs is a favorite pastime of many homemakers today," I started out, feet glued to the floor, eyes fixed on the French windows overlooking Beacon Street. I thought of my mother and the hooked-rug classes she taught. I thought of the ladies who came to our house each Thursday with their brown-bag lunches, their baskets of colorful wool swatches dyed by Mom and Dad, and their hooking frames with patterned burlap stretched on them. And as I thought about all of this, I talked about it.
I couldn't believe how quickly my speech was over, after all those agonizing hours of dreaded anticipation.
As I stepped forward to return to my seat, I heard Mrs. Barnes speak my name again,
"Miss Wardwell," she intoned in a voice that commanded full attention, "I'm sure you gave a fine speech, but you didn't speak loud enough, and no one could hear what you said. Would you mind giving your talk again?"
I was literally stopped mid-step, my flight to the safety of my chair aborted. Mrs. Barnes wasn't asking me if I would mind giving my speech again. She was telling me that I had to give it again.
I stepped back, swallowed hard, and in a loud, clear voice that felt and sounded as though it were coming from someone else, I gave my speech again, never faltering once, never losing the volume that came from I knew not where. I finished and marched triumphantly to my seat amid the applause of my classmates.
Was it the wreath lady's confidence in my ability to deliver something entertaining and informative, or was it her desperation to fill the program that prompted her to ask me to speak? The reason wasn't important. What was significant was the freedom I felt driving away from her home, knowing I was booked to give a talk to the Historical Society - never mind that the subject was as wide open as the cloudless blue Maine sky that cold winter day.
Two secrets of successful public speaking were revealed to me that day in the Gold Ballroom: My courage and confidence were proportionate to the volume of my voice. The volume, in turn, forced me to moderate the speed of my delivery. These simple techniques - speaking loudly and slowly - enabled me to command and hold the attention of a roomful of people. Mrs. Barnes gave me the opportunity to make this powerful discovery that day in the Gold Ballroom.
Now all I need is a subject.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society