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Contemporary Fiction

Does the thought of speaking in front of a large group make you nauseous? Do you stay awake the night before a speech? Do your hands shake? Does your mind go blank?

To achieve success in the world today, people need to present their ideas with force and impact. Don’t let life pass you by! Speaking worries are a treatable problem. In this class you will learn to overcome your discomfort. With the help of a licensed expert and a proven method, you can begin living free of fear! Change is just around the corner, but you must sign up!

Saturdays 9am-Noon. Location: Warm Springs High School. Enrollment limited to 20.

*************

The ink from the adult education catalogue smeared onto Jack’s fingertips as he read the course description a seventh time. The clock clicked 9:05am. No one spoke. A woman in the front row chewed on a nail, biting it at different angles. Behind her, a young man bounced his leg and twirled a mechanical pencil. He wore gray slacks, a white short-sleeved shirt and a pale blue tie. Jack had debated over what to wear and decided on a comfortable pair of beige cotton slacks, a white shirt with blue vertical strips and no tie—professional but casual. It was Saturday after all.

Since signing him up, Ellen dropped hints every day, “Maybe next weekend we can go out to lunch after your class,” or “Could you pick up the dry cleaning after your class on Saturday?” He said nothing. This morning he just woke up, got dressed, and left—intentionally stating on the way out that he would see her after class. That ought to have assured her that he wasn’t skipping out. No way was she going to drive him to school like a first grader.

“Maybe the class has been cancelled.” The young man with the tie spoke to Jack. The nail biter and two others turned around. Jack felt obliged to shrug.

I’m not talking to anyone. Everyone is neurotic. I don’t have to be here. I am definitely not coming back.

Boom. The door swung back and bounced off the wall. A short, thin man in a three-piece suit and round spectacles blazed across the room like a meteor and slapped his briefcase on the desk.

“Welcome to The Art of Fearless Speaking.” He introduced himself as Dr. Thomas Neubank. The Dr. stood for PhD in Speech Therapy. “I'm sure you're all anxious to get started.”

Jack wondered if the instructor was shouting or the class had been that quiet.

“I have here the first edition of The Book of Lists. In it contains one of the most famous, over-quoted surveys on the human condition.” He held up the book. “It states that forty-one percent of Americans are afraid of speaking before a group. Only nineteen percent consider death their greatest fear. Can you believe this? More people are afraid of giving a speech than they are of dying. A simple speech…,” the book shook above his head, “is scarier than death.” He walked over to the front row, leaned in, and spoke softly, “My goal is to reprogram that fear, rid you of your terror, and move death up a notch.”

The instructor tossed the book behind him and it spiraled onto the desk. Jack peeked down at the catalogue. Most of the class descriptions included the instructor’s background. This one didn’t.

“Public Speaking, like Math and English, is a required skill in life.” The instructor walked about the room with one hand in his vest pocket while the other waved about like a conductor. “And yet, most of you probably only had one semester of speech in high school and four years of Math and English.”

A few people nodded.

“This is probably for the best because whatever it is that you did learn, in school, on the job, out there…,” he pointed to the door, “this will have to be unlearned. In this class we will be breaking down the various aspects of speech and building a foundation of skills that will allow you to speak confidently, clearly, and passionately.”

He went to his desk and grabbed a clipboard.

“Today we will be working on stage presence. And we will be confronting that multi-headed beast: the audience. But first let’s get to know each other. When I point to you, tell me a little about yourself and why you are here today.”

The instructor randomly selected people to introduce themselves, talk about their profession, and discuss their symptoms. Jack stayed alert and prepared himself whenever someone finished. He had an extra cup of coffee at breakfast after a restless night thinking about the toast at Rob’s wedding and whether he really had to do it. What if he went through all this effort and found out it wasn’t necessary?

“Okay, tell us about yourself.” The instructor looked at him.

Jack blurted out his name, profession, and company then took a breath. “I need some practice so I can make a toast at my son’s wedding.”

“Excellent! We'll certainly give you some training for that,” Dr. Neubank said, “but you really have nothing to worry about. Toasts are light-hearted speaking engagements. Everyone is happy, drunk, and your job doesn’t depend on it.”

“That’s true.” Jack faked a smile.

The unblinking eyes behind the round spectacles waited for more. Jack offered nothing.

“Okay, I think we’ve got a good handle on everyone’s problems when faced with a speaking engagement. Now let's address these issues and work on some solutions.”

Jack settled in for a nice long lecture that ought to finish out the day. He’d be able to daydream and still pay attention—a skill perfected in meetings at work.

“Sensitivity will destroy you.” The instructor's voice resonated around the room. “Any judgments you have about yourself, any concerns about your performance, whether real or imagined, will create a paralyzing effect. Our goal in this class is to de-sensitize you—to train you to ignore these thoughts and eventually remove them.

He held up another book, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

“Dale Carnegie said the only way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear to do. In this class you will be confronting your fears head on through repeated exposure to a difficult situation that will lessen your fear each week. But we are going to do it slowly. I want to see progressive, little successes. Small steps. Okay?”

He received a few nods.

“So let’s start with the basics. Eyes. Who here loses their train of thought when someone is looking at them?” Dr. Neubank pointed to the young man in front of Jack. “Yes, Nirav.”

Nirav said his mind had gone completely blank during a job interview whenever he looked up at the panel of four engineers interrogating him. Only by staring at his shoes could he remember what he wanted to say.

“Let’s try an exercise to help you with that.”

The instructor coaxed Nirav to the front and told the class to focus all their attention on Nirav. Nirav was not to speak. Instead, he had to look at the person sitting in the far-right seat of the front row for five seconds. Then the person in the second row. Then the third. When he had gone through the entire class Dr. Neubank asked Nirav how he had met his wife.

“Think about your answer, choose a face, focus, then speak,” the instructor explained. “Stop after each sentence and choose another face. Got it? Now speak.”

Nirav and his wife grew up in the same small city in India but first met while on vacation in London. Both graduated from the same university in Texas where he studied computer science and she received a bioengineering degree. They got married, moved to Fremont and got jobs in high-tech. Nirav spoke for two full minutes.

“What were you feeling during the exercise?” he asked Nirav.

“Oh. It was difficult,” he laughed nervously, “but then I saw people smiling and I got caught up in what I wanted to tell them.”

“Good. You may sit down.”

Nirav let out a big sigh and flopped into his seat.

One by one, Dr. Neubank brought each person to the front and had them silently stare at the other members of the class. On Jack’s turn, a wave of nervous energy flashed through his body. He cupped a hand over his mouth to hide an anxious yawn and strode up to the front. When he faced the class, he did not expect the view. His whole life he had sat among the audience, and now he towered several feet above a field of faces. He felt unusually tall. Instinctively, he lowered his head to try and get back to everyone’s height.

Before the exercise began, a dozen different expressions greeted him at once: some smiled, some were stone-faced, some were curious, while others sized him up. His skill in communicating at work with a variety of personalities was to match the attitude of the person he spoke with. The dizzying search for a consensus overwhelmed him and he started to sway.

Dr. Neubank told him to close his eyes and when he opened them, choose people at random and make eye contact for as long as he felt comfortable. Jack exchanged a smile with the nail-biting woman. An elderly gentleman gave him a nod. Jack’s heart rate slowed. In the back of the room, a crew-cut man with cynical eyes offered a bored sigh. Jack returned the frown and moved on to two others without a smile. After five people, he got the point of the exercise and didn’t see the need to continue.

The instructor asked about his speaking difficulties. Jack said he had none.

“Any failed speeches from the past?” Dr. Neubank asked.

“Nope, not a one.” Jack looked to his right. A woman rolled her eyes.

“So? Why are you here?”

“Because I hate making speeches.” Jack turned to Dr. Neubank. “In fact, I avoid them altogether.”

“Interesting,” the instructor said. “Let’s save you for later.”

The instructor motioned for him to sit.

After the last person completed the eye contact exercise, Dr. Neubank raised his hands in the air for everyone to stand.

“Simon says: stand evenly on the balls of your feet.”

The class obeyed.

“Simon says: drop your arms to their sides.”

Folded arms and clasped hands dropped.

“Simon says: bend your knees slightly.”

A few bodies bounced up and down, others just a little.

“Simon says: put your shoulders back.”

Some moved subtly, others exaggerated the movement like privates in boot camp.

“Let out your gut.”

Jack relaxed.

“Ah-ha! Got you. Simon says: hold in your stomach.”

Jack held it in and sucked in his breath.

“Now breathe and hold in your stomach.”

Jack's chest rose.

“Ha! Got you again.”

Jack looked around at the others.

“Let me show you how to combine good posture with proper breathing. Put one hand on your stomach and one on your chest.”

Everyone followed orders.

“First, let in air from the bottom of your lungs. The hand on your stomach should be rising. I don’t want to see the hand on your chest move. Now exhale by pushing the air out with your stomach. Good, now breathe in again. Keep that upper hand still.”

The instructor walked around the room and checked everyone’s hands.

“You have now mastered Belly Breathing. When you speak and come to the end of a sentence—stop and inhale, expanding the stomach only. Start speaking the next sentence on the exhale, pushing the air out with your stomach. Pushing air out with your stomach is how you get volume in your voice.”

The instructor gave them a few sentences to repeat while practicing the belly breathing technique.

“Excellent. Now let's take a deep breath. Start with the stomach and continue breathing in. Your ribs should now be expanding.” The instructor glanced about the room. “Now, you may fill in the upper lungs. Your chest should be rising. Get those lungs full. Keep breathing in Susan, you’ve got more room in there.”

The class blew up like balloons.

“Now, slowly. Very slowly. Exhale.”

A few lips flapped when releasing air.

“At the end of a major point, take a deep breath—expand the stomach and fill the chest. This will give you the necessary time and oxygen to help you focus on your next point.”

They repeated breathing several more times. Five short breaths for every deep breath. Jack was getting dizzy.

“Congratulations, you now know how to breathe properly. You can see that it is only possible if you are standing erect. You can’t fill up those lungs if you are hunched over. An important reason for good posture.”

Dr. Neubank set up a camera in the back and turned on a TV behind the teacher’s desk. Everyone took a turn speaking in front of the camera and watching their performance after. They could talk about anything. Dr. Neubank would not let them begin until their posture was correct.

On his turn, Jack hustled to the front, took a deep breath and began to speak. The instructor stopped him. His posture was wrong. Jack shifted, adjusted, tightened, and straightened but it wasn’t comfortable and it wasn’t correct. He let out a sigh of frustration so Dr. Neubank stopped giving suggestions and let Jack work it out in silence. Jack knew he wouldn’t be allowed to speak until he got it right so he just stood there, defiant. Then he realized he wouldn’t be dismissed either. Dr. Neubank would wait all day. Jack tried one more time and straightened his back. The instructor shook his head.

“What? What am I doing wrong?”

“Don’t fight it. Your body knows what’s correct.”

Jack whispered a few curses then gave in and set himself right. He waited, relaxed, shifted and relaxed again.

“Okay, begin.”

“The correct stance in baseball while standing in the batter’s box is entirely different from the correct posture while speaking in front of an audience.” Jack could taste the fire on the tip of his tongue. “Let me demonstrate.”

Jack stood on the balls of his feet, shoulder-length apart, and explained why this stance best prepared you to react to an approaching ball. The body could swing at a strike or step back from an inside ball. This stance was also important for safety in case of wild pitches. He demonstrated how to move out of the way and then returned to the proper stance.

“Bend your knees for flexibility. You are a spring and a flexible spring has more power.” He bounced on his feet and knees. “Look over your shoulder. Elbows up to swing evenly at the ball.”

Jack stood before the group, ready to hit a ball out of the park.

“When you are ready to swing, start with your legs. Stride forward in the direction you want the ball to go. But remember swinging too late or too early affects the direction as well.”

Jack stepped towards right field then back, towards center and back, finally to the left.

“Maintain eye contact. Just like you’re giving a speech.” This sudden connection made him pause. Dr. Neubank smiled. “Um…eye contact. Keep your eye on the ball. Pull the bat with your front arm, using your back arm as a guide. Watch the bat hit the ball and let it all go.”

Jack swung slowly, talking through each step then swung again at normal speed. He watched his homerun with a hand shielding his eyes from the sun, then made sounds of fans cheering. He repeated once more in slow motion and at regular speed.

“Any questions?” He looked at Nirav who gave him a thumbs up.

Jack put his hands on his hips and looked smugly at Dr. Neubank.

“Excellent. Excellent.” The instructor applauded. “Wonderful gestures. Your facial expressions varied from earnest concentration to raging rebuttal. Very well done.”

Raging rebuttal stuck in Jack’s mind as he took his seat. His disdain for the instructor’s posture exercise had subconsciously produced an improved performance. An unintended success. He was like those athletes who played better when they were angry. Turning frustration into focused concentration. That would be easy to reproduce if he ever had to speak at work. But what about a wedding?

The instructor played back the tape and analyzed Jack’s speech. The fire in Jack’s veins cooled as he watched his demonstration. He stood with his shoulders slouched forward like a nerdy teenager. In the batting position, his back was stiff and he hardly bent his knees. He swung the imaginary bat in the most un-fluid, jerky motion possible. All the aggravation at Dr. Neubank and the posture exercise disappeared. The video had robbed him of his rebellious victory. But he needed to see this. To bring him back down to earth. He had actually believed he was a decent speaker.

On his way home, Jack rolled down the window to let the wind blow through his hair. Now his weekend could begin. He left his empty notebook on the coffee table and found Ellen in the bedroom folding laundry.

“So, how’d it go?” She shook out a pair of underwear.

“Don’t expect any miracles.”

“I just want you to relax the day of Rob’s wedding and say a few words. Something to make him proud of his dad.”

“He’s not proud of me?”

“I’m sure he is but a little something extra, something unexpected would be a nice touch.”

A speech would hardly do it, Jack thought.

The next day he headed over to his favorite bookstore and browsed through the psychology section looking for a book on fears. Nothing he found said anything about speaking in public being worse than death.

April 14, 2022 19:10

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6 comments

Moon Lion
05:00 Apr 24, 2022

Such a good use of the prompt, and also the advice was very realistic (did you do any research on the topic?). The writing style was really flowy and consistent, and the story was really fun and relatable.

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Craig Westmore
12:30 Apr 24, 2022

Thank you, Moon! This is a chapter from my novel that I shelved last year. My chapters were too long and these weekly prompts are teaching me how to condense. I read a couple books on public speaking but none of them address the basics of making eye contact and posture with breathing. I took a class which is where the eye contact exercise came from but the lecture on breathing is my invention. Thanks for reading!

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16:39 Apr 21, 2022

I am a total newbie to this circle, and to writing, so forgive me if my comments are not constructive. I liked your consistent grammar and narrative voice and could see how a short story like this one could fit within a larger story. My only thought was maybe you could utilise more show than tell i.e. "Jack was getting dizzy" to the room spun or similar. Make the reader work a little more through hints over direct explanations. Well done and take care.

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Craig Westmore
18:26 Apr 21, 2022

Thanks Madelaine! Yes, this is actually a chapter from my novel which I shelved last year. My chapter lengths were too long and these weekly prompts have taught me how to condense. I'll rework the descriptions so there's more showing. I've been struggling to describe that moment where he first stands before the class.

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21:48 Apr 18, 2022

How the reader was brought into the 'sound' of the room was very well done, haven't seen fiction describe a speaker this well many times before. I could really picture the instructors loud voice.. "“Sensitivity will destroy you.” The instructor's voice resonated around the room... Taking us through physical descriptions "Jack's chest rose..." I think was also part of what pulled us in as well. Calling out to all 5 senses.. I do feel the climax was at the instructor playing the tape back, a really strong twist as I was really relating to hi...

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Craig Westmore
00:21 Apr 19, 2022

Thanks, Scott. Yeah, I really didn't know how to end this one. It's actually a chapter from my novel but pared down a lot. My chapters were way too long. Writing short stories for this contest has taught me how to cut out the extraneous details.

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