What I learned giving speeches when I was 12

Bill youngIn last week’s Democratic National Convention comedian Sarah Silverman quoted her shrink, who said ‘we don’t get what we want, we get what we think we deserve.’

I don’t remember why I chose to compete in an oratorical contest when I was 12, didn’t know it really meant, didn’t understand what the Optimist Club of Allentown was, but I wrote a speech, and it was about encouraging people to vote.

My speech coach was named Rick Sharp: and even though it was the 1980s, he was in the 70s still with his glasses, his hair and beard, the tie he wore the nights I competed. I don’t remember much about the speech or Rick, but I can see how his eyes narrowed as he focused on me while I practiced, how he twisted the hair beneath his lips, the kind of advice he gave me to be natural, to relax.

I won the first round, which couldn’t have been more than three or four kids my age plus our families, a room that maybe seated 20.

But when I got to the next level (it went from city to district to state), it was at the headquarters for Mack Trucks in Allentown, a big parking lot, a big stage with an auditorium and every seat full: maybe a couple hundred people, it seemed that many at the time.

I’d never been on a stage like that with the flags, the podium, the lights…we picked numbers to determine our speaking order, and I drew last. It was a long night of oration. The speeches were maybe five minutes each, and I was against a dozen others. Their speeches were good, and it was hard for me to sit there thinking about mine and not get intimidated. When I looked back at my parents, my grandparents, they’d smile and make encouraging faces, anything you can say without words to say you’ll do great.

When it was my time, I took to the stage but stumbled, nearly fell and dropped my papers but recovered, got to the podium and microphone, and delivered it. The speech talked about the diversity of our country, how we’re like strands in a rope that come together and tighten when we’re under pressure, that we actually get closer through times of tension, we get stronger. I used my hands to illustrate the strands coming together like Rick Sharp taught me, and when they announced who won it was me, William Gibbard.

But when I went to the next competition at the state level I really didn’t think I could go any further. I didn’t present well, didn’t win or place, but at least I wasn’t surprised or disappointed because I didn’t believe I could — I’d gotten what I thought I deserved.

The same thing happened my second year in college when I competed for a theater scholarship on a big stage at Penn State, the first time I’d ever gotten sick before a performance, my nerves were so bad: another big stage but no one in the audience, just a few serious-looking people acting as judges in the front, that look of disgust.

It was me and a girl I was dating, who our director later left his wife to marry, my scene partner (I tried looking them up years later but he never wrote back, probably best).

My color was off since I’d just puked, and I had no sense of the character or scene, I was just aware of myself acting, spouting out lines, trying to control my breathing, my voice, it was like one of those dreams where you see yourself about to die but you can’t do anything about it.

I didn’t believe I belonged there, and because my ability to rationalize had grown more sophisticated, more mired in fear and self-doubt with the life experience that high school and college brings, I expected only failure, which was easier to accept once you expected it.

The theater and speech performances helped me in corporate life though, when I got into managing projects and we often had to give updates or defend the work we were doing, a different kind of stage that still requires you know your lines, understand motivation, look natural.

What Sarah Silverman’s shrink said reminded me of how much we set our destinies by our own expectations and assumptions. So much of what I haven’t done yet in my life has been governed by what I’ve allowed myself to see, for what I think possible.

When I climbed Mount Rainier in 1999 I had no experience mountaineering, didn’t have the right gear, didn’t have a guide who even wanted us to summit because he was a jerk, and yet I got to the top by sheer will because I couldn’t imagine not making it.

As I’ve gone from the security of work to the limbo-land of changing professions and trying to find ways to monetize my writing but still do the kind of writing I love, I’m re-experiencing those fears from the past, and how funny it is we cling to those fears, we defend them: they’re predictable at least, something we can hide behind and control, by not taking the leaps of faith that let us do truly remarkable things.

Those times we’re at our best we’re probably using fear as a kind of fuel, which focuses us on a speech or a part we’re playing, or lets us traverse a dangerous stretch of trail where every step really matters. It’s what I think drives climbers to take those risks, how alive you feel focusing yourself that way, knowing you have to.

Once we manage the fear we not only get what we want or expect, we get both — and then I think, we really live.

Brad and I on the summit of Mt. Olympus (Pacific Ocean background), July 2009

Brad and I on the summit of Mt. Olympus (Pacific Ocean background), July 2009



Categories: inspiration, musings, writing

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23 replies

  1. I’m more of the ignorance is bliss mountaineer/writer. Only in retrospect do I get how foolish I was.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 😎 good article! best,


    gregg s johnson cell: 206.399.3066 email: gregg@greggsjohnson.com



  3. Reminds me of my time in debate in high school. Nice change of pace post. Nice rugby shirt in the pic up there, too. I think I had all of those haircuts at some point except maybe the last one.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Confidence in the face of adversity is definitely important, but sometimes it doesn’t require you have the confidence to think you can do it well, but merely the confidence that you can fake it well until you know what you’re doing. I remember going into many a contract where the boss oversold me and I had to fake it for a while. After chatting with other consultants, they often admitted to faking their way through it too. Admittedly, faking it well usually requires related experience.

    Of course, some people never do figure out the person they’re following is just faking it, and the faker never has to actually become competent, but that’s another story.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Love the photos. Did you autograph one? Sweet. Fear is a funny fucker because the angles I usually fixate on don’t work out like I imagine. Even knowing that, I still don’t let it go. Guess a mind looks for comfort in the familiar. The nausea thing strikes me because my daughter gets it bad before cross country meets and even practice lately. When is fear just not worth it, you know?


    • People have probably launched careers for themselves espousing why fear is toxic and how to overcome it. I like the way you describe its angles. I think it spills out like gas from a can. A quote I like (I think from Seth Godin) is something like, listen to your fear but don’t obey it. There’s a nice distinction there, I think. That stinks about your daughter getting sick like that. I was lucky, it only happened to me once that I remember. Glad you liked the photos, they’re funny. I think that was my mom’s writing on the one picture: good eye on that Kristen! Thanks for reading. I’ve been reading so many ‘business’ blog posts lately I think it affected my writing here, but I managed to keep it apolitical even though I was tempted to do otherwise.


      • This was a fun departure to read. Good to mix it up now and again. I’m a sucker for old photos and/or stories. This gives me ideas.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad to be an idea giver, that’s super! My wife’s comment about Sarah Silverman’s line there (we get what we think we deserve) inspired this, especially as I’m working through a career change. Good timing for that.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I related to a lot in your post … When I would try for something on a lark (student essay contest, e.g.), no one would be more surprised than me when I’d win. When I’ve purposely set myself up, I’ve also at the same set my expectations low and met those expectations. It’s why at 59 I’m still trying to believe in myself as a writer despite the encourage I’ve gotten over the years from friends and complete strangers. If anything will work for me, it will be “sheer will.”


    • Hi Marieann — thanks for reading and your note here. I’m glad you related to it, that’s what I’m hoping for in my writing. Though I am sorry you feel the same about the self-doubt or belief part, I relate to that too. I’m going through that now as I reconsider my career, and where you start, and how much our assumptions (which can be fear-based) direct our thinking. Like, starting with the assumption I’ll never make good money as a writer and leading with the compromise, thinking I can side-gig the writing or retrofit it somehow, which isn’t much of a strategy. So I’m glad in a sense you relate, but sorry too for sharing those similar doubts. It seems such a part of the arts, two conflicting forces driving you to do it and reminding yourself at the same time it’s a bit crazy. But the other, more practical options are just as crazier I’ve learned, if not more so. “Some curses are good,” a good writer/editor friend said to me once. I hope for your sake you have the same curse, my friend. Bill


      • Thanks, Bill. It’s good to know I’m not alone in how I feel, and I credit that to the blogosphere. Thanks to coming online, I’ve learned there a lot of writers like me out there and that’s comforting. It’s also frustrating because it’s meant I can’t fantasize anymore about being a one-hit wonder like Harper Lee, but I am getting a little too old for that anyway 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • Nothing wrong with one-hit wonders in my book, I’ve always thought…like those bands that get criticized for only making one great song (I’ll stop the world and melt with you), I often think they’re lucky they made one good hit because most of us don’t, right? Yes, the blogosphere is good, good folks in this here campground.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. oh, i love the photos and always hated, and still do, public speaking!


  8. This was good, real good. Proceed to nationals.
    I’ve never felt fear of failure in my writing because I understand that nothing bad is really going to happen, ultimately. The things I don’t do are motivated more by laziness, procrastination, time conflict and all those usual bad habits.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I need to follow suit with you on that fear of failure thing. I think I’m finally getting it, more pragmatic than emotional about things. I’m glad you liked it, thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

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