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Dying to be a Public Speaker?

I got a call today from a woman who owns a bakery that specializes in selling gluten free products—cookies, biscotti, scones and other wonderful wheat free foods. She has a good niche market but wants to grow her business—and someone told her to look into public speaking as an avenue to get the word out. I told her I thought it was a great idea and I’d love to help. Then I asked, “Do you like speaking in front of groups?” She gasped (literally) and said “why no, I’m scared to death. That’s why I’m calling you.” She was hoping that I could help her overcome her fear. “Well, how deep is your fear?” I asked. “It’s really bad,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ll stand up to speak, have a heart attack and die right there in front of everyone. That would be so embarrassing!” I didn’t dare tell her that embarrassment would be the least of her worries. And instead I told her not to worry. That as far as I knew there was only one person who had died of a heart attack while actually giving a speech. And his was a happy death.



Then I told her the story of Alben Barkley.


Alben Barkley was a politician who served as the 35th Vice President of the United States from 1949-1953 under President Harry Truman. Prior to serving as VP, Barkley was in the US Senate for over twenty years.


Barkley was known for his strong public speaking skills. He was a fierce debater in college and went on to become a powerful political and keynote speaker. His “stump speaker’s lungs” contributed to his booming oratorical presence. Above all he loved rhetoric, had a great sense of humor and was a wonderful storyteller.


Alben Barkley would have probably been lost in the historical archives had it not been in part for the unusual circumstance of his death. While giving a speech at the 1956 Mock Convention held at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia he felt pressure in his chest. When he finished his speech, with applause ringing in his ears, he collapsed and died of a massive heart attack.


Maybe I’m a romantic, but Barkley died doing something that he really loved to do. Political public speaking was his calling and his passion. And a public speaker dying while giving a speech? Well, that strikes me as not a bad way to go.


My client was quiet after hearing this story. I told her that her chances of actually dying of a heart attack while she was promoting her gluten free baking business were slim to none.  But I don’t think I convinced her. “I’ll think about it,” she said. “I’ll call you in the morning.”

January 14th, 2010 | Permalink | Trackback | Bookmark and Share

6 Responses to Dying to be a Public Speaker?

  1. henry d bliley

    I disagree with the facts relating to the sequence of events in the very public death of of the death of Alben Barkley. There is ample documentation of the event and the story should be told as it actually occurred. Should you car to contact me I will fill in the blanks . . . .


  2. henry d bliley

    forgive my errors, it is late and I very tired and have been in a sick bed for the past 4 weeks….but I think you get my point.


  3. Simon Raybould - public speaking trainer

    Hi - just out of curiosity, what were you trying to do when you told her this story???!!! ;)


  4. Angela DeFinis

    Hi Henry, thank you for pointing this out. The details surrounding Barkley’s death are indeed numerous and as you say well documented but I didn’t see a need to add too much detail about the sequence of events in this particular blog. I would welcome your additions and corrections if you would like to contribute. I know our readers would appreciate hearing the full story from someone who is well versed. Sorry to hear you have been sick for four weeks and my best wishes for your speedy recovery!

  5. Angela DeFinis

    Hello Simon, thank you for asking. My intention in telling her this story was to reassure her that the cases of anyone actually dying of public speaking are rare-and that she shouldn’t worry that she would be one of them. Perhaps this blog didn’t come across quite as supportive as our hour long phone call. Tell me more about what you think. How did this strike you?

  6. Antonia Hyde

    I’m not sure that whether your friend might or might not die in front of an audience is the point. Unless of course, she was really telling you that her problem is on the level of a phobia. In which case, as you imply, there was no easy solution and another way of expanding her business might be advisable.

    I suspect that many of us tend toward hyperbole when describing a fear. Instead of focusing on the drama of her fear and accepting it at face value, trying to dissect what exactly made her think she might die on stage, might have revealed that she was merely exagerating to get you to lead her toward another solution. Or that what she feared wasn’t so much literally dying as perhaps something that to her was the equivalent of dying such as forgetting her lines, stuttering, breaking out into a cold sweat or all of those things. Who knows. Or maybe it really is a phobia and another approach would have been less threatening.

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