When I think back on my time as director of student activities at the University of Redlands, there is one memory that always will rise above the rest. It’s a memory that still brings chills up and down my spine. Perhaps because it involved a number of firsts.
It was the first time I spoke at the historic Memorial Chapel on the University of Redlands campus.
It was the first time I spoke in front of more than 200 people.
It was the first time I spoke to the University community, alumni, and dignitaries all together in one place.
It was the first time I wrote and presented an introduction for a famous person.
It was the first time I met a president of the United States.
It was the first time I had an intimate one-on-one dinner with a president of the United States.
It was the first time I 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, but never a president of the United States. This was the cherry on top of the cake, as far as I was concerned. But little did I know what was coming next:
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. So, it’s decided. You’ll be 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 can only think about pink elephants? You’re thinking about pink elephants now, aren’t you? See, it works. Well, that’s what happened to me once I agreed to introduce President Carter, only the pink elephants were replaced by stage fright, anxiety, and pure fear. I mean, it is one thing to stand up in front of my Toastmasters group of 13 to give a speech. It’s an entirely different challenge to introduce a president of the United States in front a packed Memorial Chapel of more than 1,200 people.
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?”
On top of all the comments, my mind was going crazy as I prepared. Should I use humor or just tell the facts? Do I talk about his presidency, or all the things he’s done afterward? Can I read my introduction? And who’s going to be in the audience? Does it matter? What do 1,200 people look like from the podium up on the stage? And what if I mess up?
As the event got closer, my anxiety compounded. I was having a difficult time pretending that I was ready, when I knew deep down inside that I wasn’t even close. Fortunately, I was scheduled as one of the speakers for my Toastmaster club a couple of days before the 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. He 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.
Despite the small audience, I was trembling uncontrollably. What’s going on! Why am I so freaking nervous?
Sweat began dripping down my face. My voice shook more than the “L” 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!”
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 are dying up there. That’s not like you.”
The speech that I was trying to give had now worked its way to my stomach, and I was in agony. “Okay, I’m really nervous,” I said. “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 forego 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, but then I closed my eyes to see what I was seeing. My body tensed up as the image became more and more clear.
The room I saw 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 an infinite 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. 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.
“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 can lose its spontaneity and come off as too contrived.”
“The jokes should help you get into the groove, but how else could you calm your nerves beforehand?” asked new member Dawn.
“I have a suggestion that should help,” offered Bob. “Go into Memorial Chapel—today—and stand behind the podium and look out. Look up into the balcony and imagine 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, the crowd, and 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 will look like, so my mind added a couple of zeros to the equation.“
The group nodded and smiled.
“Bob,” I asked, “Do you mind if I skip practicing again so I can head out to the chapel right now?”
Cheers and high fives broke out as I headed out the door. Nothing else needed to be said. Everyone there knew that I didn’t need more practice. I needed to visualize.
I will always be grateful to Bob for the chapel suggestion. After standing on stage and looking out at all the empty seats, I saw how much my imagination had exaggerated things. When you divide 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. (See the first couple of minutes here)
*From Geese’s new book, “It’s All About Me.”