Commentary

Snow: My life and times behind the speaker’s lectern

February 9, 2013 

For some inexplicable reason, I’ve recently received several speaking invitations. I’ve had to explain that I gave up public oratory a couple years ago.

Public speaking ranks just behind or just ahead of fear of flying in some polls as the most dreaded human experience. Stage fright in some degree is a universal affliction.

Because I was the best reader in the second grade, I was once chosen to read the Bible on stage at an assembly of the entire school – first through 11th grades.

Looking out over the sea of faces, I panicked. My knees banged together in a juvenile version of the Charleston.

My mouth turned as dry as sandpaper. The pages of the Good Book fluttered as if rustled by a 60-mph gale. Halfway through the 23rd Psalm, deciding that everybody knew the outcome anyway, I scooted off the stage.

As editor of the Raleigh Times, I did my share of public speaking at civic clubs and other organizations, thanks to publisher Frank Daniels Jr.’s edict: “If you’re invited, go.”

I remember with a smile one occasion when it was obvious that I was the “ox in the ditch” last-minute replacement.

Before introducing me, the program chairman went to great lengths to express regret, if not outright dismay, over the scheduled speaker’s cancellation.

Finally, seemingly close to tears, he concluded lamely, “So I present to you A.C. Snow, communist from the News and Observer-Raleigh Times who will speak to us now.”

A common fault among many organizations is taking care of business ahead of the speaker, who twiddles his thumbs impatiently as guests are introduced and last meeting’s minutes, along with the results of the door-to-door light bulb sales, etc. are discussed.

Dan Rather, former CBS Evening News anchor, speaking at our national newspaper editors convention, once discussed the problem.

While on his first job at a small radio station in Texas, he was invited to address a local civic club. He spent hours preparing his remarks.

At the meeting, he waited and waited to be called to the lectern as one event after another transpired. Members kept drifting out until only one fellow remained.

Irritated and disappointed, Rather gave his speech anyway. At its conclusion, the lone listener applauded heartily.

Rather thanked the man enthusiastically for remaining to hear him speak, whereupon the fellow said, “Don’t flatter yourself, mister. I’m the next speaker.”

For me, the question and answer period is often a speech’s most enjoyable part. It wasn’t, though, at a speech I once attended on the NCSU campus.

The speaker had gone on too long and the hour was late. When he called for questions, the audience had none. He repeated the invitation for queries. Silence.

Exasperated, he said, “You mean I’ve come this far to share with you my thoughts and research and not one of you has a single question?

At last, a student seated near me raised his hand.

“Yes?” the speaker said eagerly.

“How far did you come?” the young fellow asked.

At this point, the program chairman thanked the speaker, praised him for his enlightening remarks, and bade everybody good night.

An amusing incident occurred when I stopped at a Rocky Mount service station to ask for directions to Barton College, where I was to speak.

“Do you live here?” I asked a woman sitting in the station.

When she replied that she did not, I explained that I needed directions to the college.

“Oh, I can tell you that,” she said brightly. “I thought you meant did I live here at the station, which I don’t. I just came in for an oil change.”

Although I’m no accomplished speaker, I’ve enjoyed traveling across Eastern North Carolina speaking to an assortment of organizations.

Who doesn’t relish applause, earned or not? Who doesn’t enjoy the handshakes and the take-home compliments, the sense of satisfaction in making acquaintances who in most cases a speaker may never see again?

An occasional standing ovation must be the equivalent to the high a quarterback feels after an 80-yard run for a touchdown. Except there’s no spiking of the ball.

Snow: 919-836-5636 or asnow@newsobserver.com

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