A Public Speaking Lesson from My Sister

I’ve been on vacation in Maine for the last few weeks. Our family has a house in a small coastal village where we come every year. I love being in Maine, so far away from the bustling Bay Area where I live. It’s a quiet retreat, a respite from the traffic, noise and density of city life. My sister met me here last week. She’s from Miami, so she too enjoys the peace and solitude. Together, we quickly settled in to a quiet routine of morning walks, time on the water, long conversations, afternoon naps and lots of reading.

Our village is small and quaint with only a handful of houses. When my sister and I arrived, only a few of those houses were opened. The summer season starts late in this part of Maine. But even with so many houses still dark and bordered up, it’s a safe and quiet place.  

One night we went to bed early and quickly fell asleep. At around 2:15 a.m., I heard a loud banging noise and then the sound of footsteps clomping up our driveway. In a fog of sleep, I listened to the heavy footsteps. “It must be a deer or moose,” I thought. I pulled the covers over my head and sunk deeper in my bed. Then I heard the footsteps walk down the porch steps and back down the driveway. All was quiet again, but I tossed and turned for the next 45 minutes thinking I should get up and make sure I locked the porch door.

When I finally forced myself out of bed, it was 3 a.m. I looked out the window and saw a woman in black running gear jogging on the road in front of our house. She was holding a large flashlight that illuminated the road in front of her and her German Sheppard. “That’s odd,” I thought. I had never seen this woman or her dog before. But something about a woman in black and a very large dog gave me some sense of peace. I assumed all was well once again and was back in bed and asleep in minutes.

The next morning my sister walked into the kitchen bleary eyed. “I’ve been up all night,” she said. “Did you hear that loud banging? I was scared to death! I would’ve come to get you but I was terrified to leave my room. I was even too afraid to turn on my light or call for help!” She proceeded to tell me the details of her arduous and fretful night.

Then I told her my version of the story. Not wanting to alarm her, I mentioned that I thought the footsteps were from a four-legged creature like a deer or a moose, and the banging could have been the animal stepping mistakenly onto our metal bulkhead.

“No,” she said, “it sounded more like someone was pounding on the front door—right under my room.”

Why did my sister and I have such different reactions to the same event? How could fear be experienced so differently in two people who shared the same gene pool and similar life experience? Not wanting to tax my brain too much since I was on vacation, I chalked it up to our reading choices.  

While my sister was spending a few hours each day engrossed in a terrifying crime novel and closing her door tightly at night to protect herself from her imagination, I was reading “The Happiness Project.” My sister was terrified, couldn’t leave her room, turn on the light, or scream for help. I, on the other hand, was in a meadow with Bambi, Stomper and the rest of the Disney crowd, pulling the covers over my head and wishing the danger away.

Now, you may be asking, “what could this story possibly have to do with public speaking?” A lot! As you know, I see public speaking lessons everywhere. So here are a few public speaking lessons that also apply to life:  

  • You are not alone: Struggling and veteran presenters often feel that no one understands the pressures, fears, or challenges they face. In truth, no matter how alone you may feel, someone out there shares and understands your experience…and can help. Reach out to others when you need help.
  • You are what you read: We hear the adage “you are what you eat,” but for those of us who love words, “you are what you read.” Fill your mind with positive words, images and themes especially before giving a presentation. Watch what you consume intellectually as well as biologically. There are benefits and unknown toxins in both.
  • When danger and uncertainty strike, take action: Sometimes, despite your best preparation, things go wrong during a presentation. Don’t let it rattle you. Listen to your survival instincts and let your head lead you out of the paralyzing fear.
  • Gather data: When you walk into a new situation, or if you hear the footsteps of uncertainty coming your way, get up and look for answers. Facts can quell your fears and at the very least let you know what you’re up against. This will give you a chance to take control. And when you do, you will feel much better about the situation.

After my sister flew back home, I had lunch with some friends from town and they mentioned the incident. In fact, it’s now the talk of the town: “The Higgins’s called the police and reported that someone was banging on their front door,” my friends said. The state police are 45 minutes away, which explained the police woman jogging through the neighborhood with her German Sheppard 45 minutes after the incident. And lucky for us the “prowler” was caught. It turned out he had too much to drink and was just looking for a place to crash.

Now, my neighbors have arrived, the houses are no longer boarded up, and I’m sleeping soundly in the dark night. The moral of the story? In public speaking and in life, reach out to others before pulling the covers over your head.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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