When it comes to choosing between speaking in public or having a cat sleep on your face and for that cat to suddenly be startled by a loud noise, most people would take the cat.
I, on the other hand, discovered around the age of 14 that the art of persuasive speaking was an effective means of defence, far less strenuous than the alternative, which was a combination of cowering and running away.
Dazzling them with rhetoric might not have eliminated the daily humiliations, but it reduced them considerably.
I also quickly realized that, sure, you could win over your Grade 8 English class with a heartfelt argument against poverty (sad children!) or reasons why you shouldn’t be mean to animals (sadder puppies!), but you could just as easily make your case with a cheap joke.
Why speak about the perils of communism when you could effectively and with far less research wisecrack about why disco sucks?
While I didn’t articulate it in so many words at the time, my public speaking philosophy was this: make them think, get elected class prez; make them laugh, get the ladies.
Many, many years later, I’m down to one lady, and most of the time I keep the cheap jokes on the page. This is far less risky than public speaking. Sitting at home, it’s easy to convince myself that my gag about the lemur and the sprinkler is crazy funny, and as I send it off to my editor, I can just imagine the milk spurting out of my readers’ noses as they read it over their bowl of Paste Flakes. Of course, I never get to see their true reactions, which at best is probably more like, “Meh…”
Every now and then, though, I do read or speak in public, and there’s tremendous satisfaction in getting the laugh then and there.
But when the laugh doesn’t come… cat on the face.
Last week, I spoke in Sherbrooke at a convention of manure-handling equipment dealers.
Already this sounds like the kind of joke that writes itself. Add to this the fact that a good portion of the 100-plus participants were Amish and you’re probably thinking that now I’m just making stuff up.
But it’s true. I was kindly invited by a local farm equipment company to speak at the closing dinner of a gathering of dealers from Eastern Canada (non-Quebec) and northern U.S.
“I’m off to speak at the manure-handling convention,” I wrote on my Facebook page. “Hope I don’t stink up the joint.”
Looking back, all I can say is: pee-ew.
It would be easy to blame the Amish. (Who doesn’t?) I could make excuses that I was wearing a microphone headset that made me feel uncomfortably like a cross between Madonna (without the cone-bra) and Tony Robbins (with a cone bra). I might also mention that there was no podium for me to stand behind to free my mind of the constant worry that my fly might be down.
But when I think about the sound of my jokes clunking to the ground like lifeless, unfunny birds, I realize I can only blame myself.
But such is life. Sometimes, like disco, you suck.
Sucking may be a body blow to the self-esteem but it’s also an opportunity to look at where you went wrong so that next time you don’t do so poorly or, in extreme cases, get so sued.
For example, I realize now that opening my presentation by telling the dealers that I refer to manure spreaders on the highway as “stupid slow machines” was not a way to ingratiate myself with my audience.
Likewise, comparing the act of procreation to flossing – not the best way to win over the Amish.
Ditto incorporating a drinking game into one’s speech.
I learned that a town named “Asbestos” is not as inherently funny as I think.
And if your audience has never broken into a sweat struggling to speak French, they’re unlikely to relate to the experience. Breaking into an actual sweat while you’re describing the experience only adds to their sense of alienation.
If said I was glad I sucked, I’d be a manure spreader myself (stupid and slow at that). But I’ve tried to learn from the cat on my face, and among the most important points to remember when it comes to public speaking are these: 1) know your audience, and 2) get paid up front.