When I think back on my time as director of student activities at the University of Redlands, there is one memory that will always rise above the rest. It’s the kind of memory that still brings chills up and down my spine whenever I go back to that moment in time. And it involved a number of firsts. No, not that kind of firsts! It was the first time I ever spoke at the historical Memorial Chapel on the University of Redlands campus.
It was the first time I ever spoke in front of more than 200 people…1,200 to be exact.
It was the first time I ever spoke to the University community, alumni, and dignitaries all together in one place.
It was the first time I ever wrote and presented an introduction for such an important person.
It was the first time I was ever videotaped speaking.
It was the first time I ever met a President of the United States.
It was the first time I ever had an intimate one-on-one dinner with a President of the United States.
It was the first time I ever rode in the President’s limo.
But it wasn’t the first time that I got so nervous that I thought I was going to pass out.
I thought it was pretty cool that President Carter accepted our request to speak at the University. I’ve booked a lot of famous speakers, artist, musicians, and authors before but never a President of the United States. This was the cherry on top of the ice cream, as far as I was concerned. But little did I know…
John (Student Body President): “Hey, do you have a minute?”
Me: “Of course. What’s up?”
John: “I wanted to ask you something. Actually, it’s not just me, the executive team wanted me to ask you on behalf of the whole group.”
Me: “Okay, shoot,” I said, wondering what could be so important.
John: “We thought it would be appropriate for you to introduce President Carter at the convocation next month.”
Me: “What? Who? Me? Why me?”
John: “Now that’s the confidence I like to see,” he said jokingly. “Yes you. You did all the work to bring him here and you deserve the credit.”
Me: “But it’s a student event…don’t you think it should be a student who introduces him?”
John: “I’ve already talked to President Appleton, and he thought it was a good idea too. You’re introducing President Carter!” John smiled and gave me the thumbs up gesture as he walked out of my office.
I could only shake my head and wonder…What just happened here!
The good…the bad…and the ugly
You know when someone says to you “Don’t think about pink elephants” and you think about pink elephants? You’re thinking about pink elephants now, aren’t you? See, it works. Well, that’s kind of what happened to me once I agreed to introduce President Carter, only the pink elephants were replaced by stage fright, anxiety, and all out fear. I mean, it is one thing to stand up in front of my Toastmasters group of thirteen to give a speech but an entirely different animal, if you will, to introduce a President of the United States in front a packed Memorial Chapel of well over 1,200 people. Don’t you agree?
I began obsessing about it. I’d frequently wake up it in the middle of the night in a cold sweat after dreaming about it. And of course everywhere I went people asked me about it. “Aren’t you nervous?” they’d say, or, “Do you realize how many people are going to be there?”
Days turned into weeks and the greatest opportunity of my life was approaching faster than heartburn after eating too much ice cream. But I wasn’t ready or prepared. My mind kept racing.
Should I use humor or just tell the facts? Do I talk about his presidency or all the things he’s done afterwards? Can I read my introduction or use bullet points, like I tell my students? And who’s going to be in the audience? Does it matter? And what does 1,200 people look like from the podium on the stage? Will speaking in front of so many people make me nervous? What if it does? What if I mess up? And who are all these Secret Service people around campus?
As each day got closer my anxiety doubled in size. I was having a difficult time pretending that I was ready when I knew deep down inside that I wasn’t even close. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, I was scheduled as one of the speakers for my Toastmaster Club a couple of days before the big convocation. This would be my opportunity to practice my introduction for the President and get some last-minute feedback from people I really trusted.
The practice speech
Bob Graham, the Toastmaster of the meeting cleared his throat. “And now I’d like to introduce to you, Greg Giesen. Greg will be presenting his introduction for President Carter and welcomes your feedback at the end of his speech. Please help me welcome, Greg Giesen!”
The eight members who decided to show up that day applauded.
My body trembled uncontrollably as I took my spot in the front of the room. There were only eight people there…and I was falling apart in front of them. What’s going on! I thought to myself as I began panicking. Why am I so freaking nervous?
Sweat began dripping down my face. My voice shook more than the El in Chicago, going around a curve.
The crowd of eight looked startled, wondering what they could do to help.
Finally, after a couple of minutes of pure agony on everyone’s part, Randy, one of the members stood up and shouted, “Time out!” while making the time out gesture with his hands.
I was relieved.
“Greg, what’s going on?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I replied. “I’m just a little nervous,” still gasping for air.
“A little?” yelled Mary Ann, the club Vice President. “Greg, you were dying up there. That’s not like you.”
The speech in my head that I had been trying to give had now worked its way to my stomach, causing much unrest. “Okay, I’m really nervous,” I said agonizingly. “I’ve never spoken in front of so many people and I’m really uptight about it.”
Seeing how important this moment was, Bob suggested we all sit in a circle and forgo the rest of the structured meeting. He then softly looked at me and asked, “Greg, when you got up to the podium, were you seeing in your mind’s eye this group of eight or were you seeing a crowd of people inside Memorial Chapel?”
Initially I thought that was a very odd question…that is until I closed my eyes to see what I was seeing. My body instantly tensed up as the image became more and more clear.
The room wasn’t a chapel at all. It was some kind of arena with rows and rows of people going as far back as I could see; maybe one or two football fields long. It was massive! I saw myself as this little dot up on stage looking out into this unending sea of people. I felt so alone up there…so intimidated…so disconnected.
I shook my head, trying to push the image out of my mind. “Oh my God, I wasn’t even in this room! I wasn’t even in the Chapel…I was in some packed arena.”
Bob nodded. “You weren’t present…with us…in this room…even with yourself. That’s where that alone and disconnected feeling comes from. You weren’t here!”
Now I was nodding.
Ron jumped in. “You are one of the best speakers in this club. What makes you so good is your ability to connect with us during your speeches. Whether it’s your humor or your stories or your eye contact…you have that ability to hook us in immediately.” He paused. “And that didn’t happen this time.”
Mary Ann interrupted. “Greg, you always start your speeches with something funny. How come you didn’t do that for this speech?”
I leaned in. “Mary Ann, actually I do have a couple of funny lines that I plan on using. I just don’t like testing out my jokes ahead of time for some reason.”
“Because they may not be funny?” joked John, another member.
Everyone laughed, as the room felt lighter.
“Timing,” I said. “My jokes have to be fairly unrehearsed in order for them to have that impromptu aspect to them. If I think too much or get feedback on a particular joke, it quickly loses its spontaneity and comes off too contrived.”
“So the jokes should help you get into the grove, but what about calming your nerves beforehand?” asked new member Dawn.
“I have a suggestion that should help,” offered Bob. “Go into Memorial Chapel…today, and go up to the stage and stand behind the podium and look out. Look up in the balcony and image people sitting there. Look to the two sides and see every seat filled. Look to the farthest seat in the back of the room and put a person there. Fill the whole Chapel. Then breathe. Feel the floor…feel the crowd…see President Carter on the side, waiting to come up. Breathe. Then break down the audience a little more. See the faces…both familiar and unfamiliar…the smiles…and feel the energy. Breathe in the energy and see it as your energy.”
I was one big smile at this point. “I got it. This isn’t about my speech and it isn’t about my skills to deliver my speech. It’s all about the image that I conjured up about the audience that’s the problem. I simply don’t know what 1,200 people in the Chapel look like so my mind added a couple 0’s to the equation. “
The group nodded and smiled.
“Bob,” I asked, “Do you mind if I forgo practicing again so I can head out to the Chapel right now?”
Cheers and high five’s broke out as I headed out the door. Nothing else needed to be said. Everyone there knew that this wasn’t about practicing for me. It was about visualizing.
I will always be grateful to Bob for the Chapel suggestion. What I learned after standing on stage and looking out at all the empty seats was how exaggerated my imagination had become. Yet, when you spread out a 1,200-seat facility into a left side, a right side, a middle section, and a balcony, the room gets very small and intimate. In fact, I was amazed at how close every seat was to the stage. Eye contact, even with the farthest person in the room, would be no problem.
Now this is very doable, I thought, as my confidence reemerged. I’m going to knock the ball out of the park!
And I did.