4H and Public Speaking

Imagine yourself standing in front of a room full of people.  You’re supposed to give a presentation.  You have your notecards, and your PowerPoint, and a bottle of water just in case.  You’ve practiced what you’re going to say in your head dozens of times.  You’re prepared.  And yet, as you stand up there all alone, in front of thousands of expectant, blinking eyes, your throat goes dry and your breathing catches and your knees get wobbly.  You glance at your carefully written notes, and take a breath, and force yourself to begin.

Sound familiar?  We’ve all had to give speeches at one time or another.  And it’s a lot of people’s biggest fear.  No one likes standing in front of others, feeling exposed.  If we mess up, everyone knows. It’s nerve-wracking.  I get why people don’t like it.

I’m the anomaly.  I actually love public speaking.  As reserved as I am, you wouldn’t think it to be true, but it is.  To me, public speaking can be easier than a regular conversation.  When I do a speech, I get to write my thoughts down on paper and organize them first, and then I get to say them out loud to an audience who wants (or has to) listen to me.  It’s like a blog post, but out loud and live.  I do get nervous, but I’ve done it enough that I’m fairly comfortable in front of a crowd, and I know that I can get through it without embarrassing myself.

It wasn’t always this way.  I first started doing speeches in 4H, and it was flipping terrifying.  In 4H, January is public speaking month.  Because 4H starts in 4th grade and continues through high school, there are different prompts for each grade level.  They gradually get harder as you get older.  Every January, members of local clubs prepare and give speeches at the monthly meeting, and those who do a good enough job in their grade category can go on to county, regional, state, and national speech competitions.

That’s where I started.  I think my family got involved in 4H when I was in 6th grade, and my mom encouraged me to do a speech.  (She may have required it as a school assignment, but I don’t remember.)  She helped me write, practice, and memorize it.  She told me when I was fidgeting, and pointed out my habit of speakingreallyfast when I get nervous (which I still have to watch out for).  I gave my speech, and I did well, so I continued.  I don’t remember how many speeches I gave, or how far I got.   I do remember also entering the local Optimist Club speech competitions when I got older.

I also vividly remember getting to state with the Optimist Club when I was a senior, where a $2000 scholarship was at stake.  I was about to graduate, and I wanted to win.  I wanted that scholarship.  There was one other student competing for the scholarship — a junior.  We drew names to see who would go first, and I got the first spot.  While I like going to first because I like to get speeches over with, this can be disadvantageous because judges sometimes subconsciously “reserve” points until later in the competition.  But I did my best — I gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever given.  The other girl was good, but I didn’t feel that her speech was as strong as mine.  (I was probably biased, but…)  However, when awards were announced, I lost the competition and the scholarship by one point.  I’m pretty sure I will always be bitter about that.

Sometimes, I miss competing.  I get to give speeches and presentations in classes, but the other students don’t really care about what I have to say.  They just want to get their own presentation over with.  I miss having more than a grade at stake.  I know I can get an A on a presentation, but I miss the adrenaline of trying to be the best.  In competitions, everyone watches you because everyone cares.  We all size each other up, and think about last minute adjustments we can make to give ourselves that edge.  In competitions, I knew I was good, but I really didn’t know if I would win.  It was a challenge.  It required me to push myself.

I did a few other things in 4H, most notably the sewing camps.  Even though I didn’t always enjoy the meetings, I am glad my parents pushed me to join and participate.  I got a lot out of 4H, and I didn’t realize until it was over just how much it shaped who I am.  But the speech competitions will always be the thing I remember most fondly about 4H.

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