January 13, 2003

Talk the Talk ~ Part Two

Talk the Talk ~ Part One

Day One in my first professional career, and already, there was the distinct smell of death. I changed gears abruptly, hoping this elusive move would distract them, make them forget our collective alien encounter that had just happened. Without further wit and humor I jumped straightway into Lecture One, the "chemistry of living things". Forty pair of eyeballs took on a manacing quality; I felt them burning holes into my tie and the collar of my shirt. I had become the prey.

"Life on Earth is carbon based, all living things are made from cells", and so on and so forth. I began my first lecture of my first class in my first career; I wondered if this might be my last. I continue for only a few paragraphs before I realized I was struggling to get my breath -- as if I had been running windsprints up the stadium seats; but I was just standing there, attempting to speak, publicly. My mouth tasted of chalk dust and my voice faltered, faded and failed. The lips were moving but there were no words coming out. "Class dismissed", I whispered pitifully after no more than 20 minutes of class. And thus I learned my first terrible lesson on the importance of breath control for those who want (or have) to be a public speaker. What had just happened to me?

Here's the physiology of speechlessness:

For reasons which I do not fathom, a person standing before others to speak perceives their audience, at the visceral level but not necessarily consciously, as a threat. There is no other way to account for the very marked "fight or flight" stress response that most of us experience when speaking publicly. Hormones like adrenalin, cortisol and others surge to the heart, and the beat rate increases. Vessels to the internal organs constrict (hence, the butterflies in the stomach) while those to muscles open, preparing for a physical encounter.

The speaker's breathing rate goes up and the depth of inspiration increases; and here's the problem. It is impossible to both inhale as your body is telling you to do for the potential emergency, and at the same time, control the exhalation as you must while forcing your breath outward while speaking. And so, we the 'threatened' speaker hears his voice begin to become starved for wind, lose force and become trembling and gaspy. Uh-oh. Wounded animal. And this perception of our own distress further adds to the angst. The lips move, there is no sound, class dismissed.

It was not very long before I learned to handle the first-of-class stress response. The nice thing about the classroom setting was that I could always shuffle papers, pretend to be looking for something in my gradebook, or take a little extra time putting a drawing on the board or somesuch, until I felt I had control of my breath. Then, I would be able to hear myself sounding confident and in control, and off we would go, learning the cranial nerves or the bony landmarks. I got quite cocky as my poise under classroom pressure improved over the first couple of years of teaching. So when a spokesperson was needed to go before the cameras to discuss our small town's "Pairing Project" with a small Russian town (back in the MAD days of the cold war), Fred was the unanimous choice. "No sweat" I thought. "Hey, I'm gonna be a star!"

What I didn't appreciate in my small town megalomania was that television is REAL TIME. Forget stalling, Charlie. There was not going to be a gradebook to thumb through until the adrenalin subsided and I could breathe. No baby, they were in my face with the microphone and the camera, and asked a very open-ended question. "Mr. First, tell us how your tiny town became paired with Krozny Kut in Siberia". Oh for a head-nodable answer! After about three sentences, I knew viewers were wondering if somebody had pulled the plug on wheezing Uncle Fred's ventilator, right there on live TV. Mercifully, it was a short spot on the 6:00 news. One of my daughter's friends told her the next day "We saw your daddy on television and he looked really scared!" Its hard to be a TV anchorperson when you're suckin' wind.

So now I've been away from the classroom for 15 years, although I have 'gone live' quite a few times since in a speaking/lecturing situation, and have done some singing, usually with at least one other person. Singing is another situation where you start and you don't stop making those noises until your finished; so singing is harder than lecturing, as far as breath control goes. Hardest time I had with singing, without a doubt, was singing a duet with my son at my daughter's wedding... before.... immediately before I was to 'give her away'. And it was a tear-jerker song from her lamentable country music period. I never once practiced it without choking up ... how was I going to be able to keep the wind and words flowing this time, but not the tears?

I somehow got in a zone, almost a self-induced trance, and I breathed all the way through it somehow. (And my daughter is still married, four years later!) But I'd have to do that kind of gig a lot to get comfortable with it, even if not losing a daughter at the end of the song.

Well shoot. All this long-winded jaw was to address the question about how the radio spot went on Friday. I promise, a few more breaths and I'll wrap this epistle up and go away.

Saving grace to recorded radio: If you make a mistake, you can just start over again, the sound editor will clip the culls. So this last time, knowing this fact as I sat there with the big headphones in front of a large boom mic, I announced to my studio person before I began: "I'm going to stop after every paragraph until I catch up with my breath". And I did. And it came out well. Thanks for asking.

Posted by fred1st at January 13, 2003 06:05 AM | TrackBack

As you know, Fred, this phenomenonen never goes away entirely...you just learn to manage it.

Your delivery sounded fine to me. The only criticism I would offer is that your tone could have been a tad more "conversational," more like the rhythm and depth of your normal speech. You sounded a little too reserved. I could pick out spots here and there where there was opportunity for more inflection or emphasis. But this will improve with time and practice as your confidence grows.

I recommend that you make a recording of yourself having a normal conversation with someone -- Ann, Nathan, Buster, anybody -- and compare it to the recording of your essay. It may be instructive to hear what differences there may be.

Posted by: Curt at January 13, 2003 10:24 AM

Conversational is preferred when the subject is everyday language. This piece was not the way I talk, for the most part. It was more, in my mind, a prose poem rather than conversation over a cup of coffee.

The other constraint: there is a strict limit to time allotted and this makes it difficult to attain a conversational pace, with the pregnant silences and casual sighs that G Keillor has the luxury of inserting effectively into his own soliloquys. This is the part I dislike the most: the three minute clock that's running all the time, and if you go over, some sentences or entire paragraphs are going to go!

Posted by: fredf at January 13, 2003 11:25 AM

I'm delighted to hear that it went well, Fred! And I'm loving your humorous reminiscences about public speaking and teaching . . . they really hit close to home for me! By the way, are your segments being archived on the internet so that one can access them at any time to have a listen? I find that I always come off sounding rather mortifyingly like a congested CHILD when I am on the radio, which, thankfully, is not all that often.

Posted by: Artichoke Heart at January 13, 2003 02:25 PM

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