How reading helped me with public speaking
I always liked to read books as a way to escape the stress of life. Whether it was the stress of school and impending assignments or the stress of work or even just personal emotional stress, it provided me with a chance to just sit quietly and read of stories that were not my own. I never imagined that the reading that I did in silence would be something that could help with public speaking. I am terrified of public speaking. I have always been extremely self-conscious of the way I speak and the way I look and that people will think I am stupid so I prefer to stay quiet. I usually only open up to my friends and even then, there are times I would rather just sit there in silence. This didn’t seem to matter much until I was in 7th grade at Boston Latin School and had to do something called declarations.
Declarations was a form of public speaking we had to do a few times a year where in our English class we were required to memorize a speech, poem, or excerpt from a book that would then be recited in the front of class for a final grade. It was the most nerve-wracking experience I had in school up to that point. Right before I had to present the first time at declaration, I was seated around a couple teenage boys who had begun noticing the changes in my body thanks to puberty. I remember going shopping with my mother the weekend before to pick out an all-white pants suit to help me feel more confident for the upcoming presentation. My source of confidence turned into my biggest insecurity as the boys began making fun and poking my butt and thighs for being “too fat”. I remember standing at the front of class, on the verge of tears, barely able to choke out the speech I was supposed to present. Not surprisingly, I got an F on my first declaration.
Declaration after declaration I managed to fail due to my fear of public speaking. I was terrified of walking up to the class knowing people would make fun of my “huge” body. I was terrified of speaking, knowing people would make fun of my voice and my stuttering. I magically became “sick” anytime I had a declaration because I just couldn’t face seeing these students. By the end of the year, I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa as I starved myself in the hopes of being skinnier like the rest of the students around me and finally be accepted. Thankfully the only other Latina student in the class of white students spoke up for me to get the help that I so desperately needed. In treatment, they recommended that I use my passion for reading to find a safe space in my head where I could just enjoy something I loved without worrying about the shape and size of my body.
By the next year, I knew I was going to have to face my fear. Declarations were once again announced, but this time the professor gave us the freedom to recite from whatever text we decided. At the time, I was reading a book about a young girl whose parents forced her to move with them to a new town that was always raining and snowing, much to her dismay. Since I enjoyed the book so much, I decided I was going to recite the first chapter of the book. I practiced at home everyday in front of the mirror and recited to my mother to the point when she could have recited herself. Compared to memorizing speeches and poems, it was so much easier because I almost became the young girl in the book. I felt the agony of having to move and the dreariness of the gray and wet location and the frustration that her parents just didn’t understand her. By the day of the declaration, I was once again terrified, but significantly less anxious. I walked to the front of the class and as a million thoughts started to rush through my brain, I closed my eyes, took a breath, and became the young girl in the story. I was animated and outspoken and dramatic and by the end of it, I was honestly having a great time. When I finished, instead of a class of uncomfortable silence, there was a round of applause from all with the loudest coming from my own professor. Compared to the sea of F’s I had gotten the year before, that declaration along with the rest in 8th grade were all A’s.
I was always a dedicated quiet student who is more comfortable with writing papers, reading textbooks, and completing tests. Even while working on my MBA, I am usually the quietest student in class. But reading books in my spare time had done something I didn’t even think it was capable of - it built my inner confidence. It helped remind me that I was smart and bright. It helped remind me that the size of my body didn’t matter to a book who was only looking for an open imaginative mind. It helped remind me of the emotions and insecurities that also lie within the characters that mirror my own. At the end of each book, no matter the circumstances or feelings behind a character, they always made it to the other side successfully. My favorite characters would never have let a speech or declaration keep them from prospering. If anything, they welcomed the opportunity to share meaningful words.
Even to this day I still get nervous when I have to speak publicly, both in school and at work. However, instead of worrying about the size of my behind or the snickering of the audience, I remind myself of all my inspirational heroines who made speeches much more meaningful than the one I shared and how even in their fear, they continue to do so to get their message across. So for those who have struggled or are still struggling with the fear of public speaking, remember Katniss and how she stood up for her sister in The Hunger Games. Remember the Mirabel sisters In the Time of the Butterflies who spoke up against Trujillo to protect their fellow Dominicans. Remember Mare from the Red Queen series as she constantly spoke out against the Silvers to make Reds and Silvers equal. Remember all the characters in books you’ve read to make you feel as empowered as they do. They are not meant to just be words on a page. Let their stories and circumstances inspire you to overcome your own fear. So the next time you prepare for a speech or presentation, it might be time to pick up a book and start practicing.
This confession is dedicated to my younger sister who is now facing the same fear and anxiety of public speaking I experienced. You are smart, bright, and brave and I know you can do this!