A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”
―Winston S. Churchill
I was at a crossroads in my life. The best way to describe it: I am a professional banker, but now questioning what life has in store for me.
Where It All Began
Life as a preacher’s son was interesting. I grew up knowing that there is more to life than just existing in this world. My father was the pastor of a local church outside Houston, and we—that is me, my mom, dad, and kid sister, Joanne—lived together in a friendly neighborhood.
I spent the greater part of my early childhood in or around the church. Even when my parents went out, our babysitters were usually members of the church. I learned first-hand, quite early in life, what it takes to lead an “organization” by watching Dad, who was always supported by Mom. Dad was quite busy not only preaching and mentoring the congregation, but also managing the “organization.” I could see the time he put into the administration of building and maintaining a vibrant and growing church.
Speaking in front of large groups of people was a piece of cake for my parents. But for me, the very thought was enough to send me into a panic, let alone actually speaking in public. I did well in school and was admitted into the University of Texas at Austin. This was the first time I’d had to give a presentation as part of my study in business administration.
I remember this event like it was yesterday. As a freshman, I had a simple topic: pick any country in the world and tell us a history of that nation. Being a history buff, I was sure it was in the bag. It was the opportunity I had been waiting for: to break out of my shell, step out of my comfort zone, and give a presentation. I chose to speak about Brazil, researching even more about this beautiful country to build on my memories of a family vacation we had taken there. The fear of speaking to the class was still in the back of my mind. But I was hopeful that focusing on my history knowledge would be enough to get me across the line.
I remember discussing this presentation with my parents, to find out how they came to be so comfortable speaking to a crowd. The response was as expected—useful but not satisfying: “Jack, my boy, you’ve got to realize that God wants the best for you. Just take this to him in prayer and let him show you that you don’t have the spirit of timidity….” to paraphrase Dad’s message. I did, of course, go back to the place of prayer—I needed all the help I could get especially from the Big Guy.
On the day of my talk, I woke up, went through my material, prayed, and came into the classroom with confidence. I stood up when it was my turn, looked around the class and every single word disappeared from my vocabulary. I literally went back to being a child, “uhhh, eeeetttttt, uuuuuuuhhhh, the the the nattttiiiioooonn ooooof Bbbbbrrrrraaaaazzziiill...”, and finally froze. No more words were coming out, and I felt like the ground should open up and swallow me. Being an “A” student, all eyes from the class were focused on me and nobody could believe that it had gone so horribly wrong.
The fact that I couldn’t speak in public was a big factor in driving me toward becoming an accountant. I mean the figures would never expect me to speak to them, right? Fortunately for me, I had a flair for working with numbers and an interest in the financial sphere.
Upon graduating from the university, I was employed at my local bank as a junior accountant. I excelled in this role, and within no time was promoted to senior accountant in the branch. I was doing very well but still felt a strong tug that I should be doing something more.
This brings me to my crossroads moment: I was a senior accountant, but my parents had started asking about grandchildren. Knowing them, I could hear them praying that I would meet a nice Christian girl to settle down with. All this whilst in my late twenties, and yet there was still something missing. I was beginning to get bored sitting behind the computer and looking at numbers. But I couldn’t see myself doing something else—this was just so comfortable.
The Dinner Party
My friend Lucy was celebrating her thirtieth birthday and decided to throw a big party. The event was billed to be one of those “you shouldn’t miss this” parties. I, on the other hand, had already planned to miss it. The thought of being in a room with all those people filled me with apprehension.
(Un)fortunately for me, other friends came together to encourage me to attend. “Jack, go and celebrate with your friend, that’s all she desires of us today.” Having realized there was no choice, I was determined to go there and stay in an isolated spot. Hopefully, nobody would bother me the entire evening. I am sure you’ve had those moments too.
Everybody has a life-changing moment, as it would turn out—this was mine. Lucy had invited The Storyteller to entertain the guests. I still wonder how she pulled that off. She entertained us with various stories, including fairy tales with so much energy and passion. I was amazed at the way she engaged the audience powerfully from the moment she opened her mouth to speak.
Listening to her, we experienced a memorable and touching evening, and I didn’t even notice when I left my isolated spot and walked toward the front. I even had the courage to walk up to The Storyteller—as if drawn by magic. Getting closer to her, she turned toward me with a welcoming smile. I told her that I appreciated her stories and the way they touched me.
My one question to her was, “How did you get to become such a great storyteller?” she laughed and told me that she would love to tell me that story, but it would have to wait for another day and invited me to discuss this further at her office. Pulling out her phone to check her agenda, she said, “Better still, I have an engagement coming up in two weeks where I want to share a story on my journey to public speaking. Would you like to attend?” she explained that the event would be held in the Cullen Hall and giggled when she said, “I am shamelessly trying to make sure the venue is fully packed for my speech.”
I was quick to grab this opportunity and laughingly agreed to be there that evening to hear her speak. I realized that this would help me to get the “scoop” on becoming a better speaker.