Public Address System
Note from Matt: This piece was read at the first "Wednesday's Way with Words" event at the Lakeside Arts Park in Crystal Lake. For best effect, imagine Matt at a podium speaking the words below in full stage fright mode. If you cannot imagine real Matt at the podium, picture instead the cartoon version as illustrated in the image at left.
I don’t like speaking in front of groups. Well, more accurately, my mind is not designed to do it. I simply do not have a built-in public address system.
It is not that I cannot recite essays like this out loud. I do so on a weekly basis as a podcast on my website. However, I can record my readings in the privacy of a dinky studio, alone. I can also rely on hours of audio editing to correct any gaffes made as my ninety-mile-an-hour brain feeds words to my two-mile-an-hour stumbling tongue. Though I have difficulty reading in front of a crowd, ironically, my preferred writing environment is a small table in a busy restaurant.
I cannot use the excuse I have never performed in front of a congregation of people before. I was in a band for ten years and played in front of crowds numbering in the single digits to scores. However, in that setting, I was never on stage alone, and I never felt like I was bearing my soul to anyone. The singer drew enough attention to his shenanigans that I felt zero eyes were on me.
Speaking of bearing one's soul, I recall the time-honored advice given to those who are afraid to speak in front of groups: you can relax by picturing your audience in their undergarments. I question if the person who gave this advice ever tried it, or ever spoke in front of a group at all. For me to picture my audience in their skivvies only grants them permission to imagine me unclothed. Then I picture myself devoid of apparel and audience members fleeing for the exits in horror. I cannot find any more comfort in picturing people in their intimates staring at me than I can imagining them in Godzilla costumes.
Another trick I’ve heard for speaking in public is to look over people’s heads instead of looking into their eyes. I can look over people’s heads all I want, but my brain is hard-wired to eventually look at someone, much like it is programmed to always want to push the big red button that says “do not touch.” My eyes will eventually make the connection, and boom, I’m distracted, and my tongue once again fumbles over my brain’s firehose stream of words.
The best advice I’ve heard about speaking in public is to assume a role, much like an actor playing a part on a stage. I can assume the role of “Matt Brauer, Confident Speaker,” switch off Matt with the stumbly tongue, and imagine myself in the audience, looking up at a more competent orator on the stage.
In fact, sitting in the audience is what I’m doing now. The person you see before you is an actor I hired to read this essay to you tonight.