I can’t believe it all fits under my pillow.
Like a tooth waiting to meet the Tooth Fairy, my speech rests beneath my head for eight hours straight. Why? Because Grace Fala told me to.
Someone who didn’t know Grace, one of the guiding lights of the Bailey Oratorical Contest, might think, “Wonderful, she’s taking crackpot speech-giving advice.” I knew better.
That’s right, I’m competing in my third straight Bailey Oratorical Contest. You’d think by now it would be old hat. Well, no. It’s just as nerve-wracking as before. Don’t get me wrong, I’m comfortable in front of an audience. Just ask my parents. Old videos reveal an excitable child with an unrelenting gaze fixed intently on the camcorder. From mini dance performances to TV sitcom spoofs with friends, I don’t mind having all eyes on me.
But there’s something about simply speaking in front of people—using nothing but your words—that makes even the confident performer weak in the knees.
Like this year’s Bailey: admittedly, I wrote the speech the day before. Granted, I’d been pondering the idea for weeks. But come on, how would you answer this idea:
“‘Like it or not we live in interesting times,’ a quote from a 1966 speech. ‘this world demands the qualities of youth.’ What does it mean to live in ‘interesting times’ and what are the qualities of youth that our interesting times demand?” Each year up until this one, an effective answer to the Bailey topic was somewhat fathomable—concrete. But this time, in my senior year, the communication faculty had thrown everyone for an absolute loop.
The inspiration never just comes to me. Instead, it reveals itself over time. The Eureka Moment shows itself in class lectures, conversations with friends, and even TV commercials. That’s when I end up looking like the stereotypical starving writer: whipping out my little notebook at random occasions to jot down an idea. Hundreds of students over the years have found themselves in my position—vying for the opportunity to have their voices heard.
The speech always comes together.
Usually the night before prelims. And then, I’m left frantically practicing in an open classroom until the wee hours, coercing friends to be the audience. Key words to the topic flashed in my mind: “interesting,” “times,” and “youth.” My mind shuffled through all of my colorful memories, and landed on one in particular: the 1971 film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “Who is a better example of the ideal youth than Charlie Bucket?’ I thought. Now I had to watch Willie again and write
I call on my friend Steve Croner ’12, of Berlin, Pa., to listen to my delivery. In an empty classroom, I stack my tattered speech—six pages, double-spaced—on the podium and ask “Will you get up and walk around during my speech?” This is to practice eye contact. A noise can jerk your eyes from the page and you scan the audience for the source while trying to keep your cool. Looking back down at the page, you’ve forgotten your place, and what’s more, your flow has been interrupted. Believe me, Steve’s classroom laps help.
I still have to force myself to speak. Imagine plunging into an icy pool. Knowing that what lies below you is a beautiful paradox: a terrible cold and shock at first, but a refreshing, exhilarating sense of accomplishment afterward. That’s public speaking.
So I take one last breath before I take the plunge: when I’m finished speaking, Steve says, “8:34.” The time limit for the Bailey speeches is eight minutes, max. Some of the best speeches have barely hit the minimum six minutes, and here I am, droning on for almost nine.
I have to speak faster—the opposite of what a public speaker should do—or cut out “unnecessary” parts of my speech. Okay, I’m being a bit dramatic. It’s not that bad yet. After all, I wrote the speech a few hours earlier. If I make it past the preliminary round, that’s when hearing “8:34” would really tear me apart. By that point edits from five different communications professors and an infinite amount of suggestions from friends like Steve would mean I’m too wordy.
By the end of the night, I’m down to 7:50 minutes. The prelims are tomorrow, and tomorrow is really today at 12:55 a.m., I decide to accept 7:50 and sleep.
The next day, in a rigid chair in the Sill Boardroom, the seconds tick by like days. “Ellen Santa Maria,” Donna Weimer calls. In the cavernous Sill Boardroom, I rise and walk carefully toward the podium. In my mind, images flicker of me falling flat on my face. I hold my speech in my right hand. Printed in 14-point font, my speech seems to mock me from the podium.
Speaking my first words, I almost feel like this is an athletic competition.
Can I throw a message well enough for the audience to catch easily? Will my pace be too fast and they’ll be left chasing my point? Will my facial expressions distract them? It’s really a delicate, strategic game: having a persuasive message, but also articulating it persuasively to a diverse audience.
Done. 7:50 minutes of pure pressure, but I made it through the prelims. Unfortunately, the first time you deliver is the easy part. Next comes the waiting period, or as I like to call it, purgatory. It’s only a matter of hours—usually within the weekend—that contestants find out if they advanced. As I read the email announcing my advancement, I let out an exasperated squeal: an audible excitement that lasted a mere second before I began stressing all over again. The finals were just a week away. I can let my mind rest for a day or two. A day or two without worrying about my rhetoric, my speaking speed, or what my face looks like while I’m talking.
Despite all this, I feel an incredible sense of ease.
So, I do it.
A little over seven minutes, and it’s all over.
I can’t look for more than a second at the audience when I’m done, because I’m so focused on sitting back down and breathing normally again. I know that each and every single one of my opponents wants it as much as I do, tried as hard as I did, and was as nervous as I was.
When all seven of the contestants are done speaking, the judges go off to some meeting room in Halbritter and decide upon a winner. Looking down the row of contestants, I congratulate everyone, and excuse myself. As I receive praise from my friends, it begins to sink in that it’s over. Done, kaput. All I have to do now is wait, literally wait. Most of my friends would characterize me as a pretty impatient person, but for once in my life, I’m happy to simply wait.
1 Comment on "Soaring Oratory" »
August 7, 2012 at 8:07 pm Cindy said: