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.”