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WOSTER: Scared to speak

Every now and then, just often enough so I remember why I should turn down the offer, I accept an invitation to speak somewhere.

By speak somewhere, I mean in public. I mean in public in front of people. I mean in public in front of people who -- at least I always imagine so -- came to the event in part with the expectation that the speaker would have something interesting to say. Usually the speaker, if it turns out to be me, leaves the event believing he failed to meet expectations and vowing to never, ever again accept an invitation to speak in public.

0 Talk about it

I read an Internet piece the other day on five things a speaker should never say to an audience. I hadn't been looking for that information. I have no pending speaking engagements or anything. It was one of those things that pops up on the screen sometimes when I start a program. Usually I ignore those things. They're often a link to a must-see video about something totally irrelevant to anything that has ever happened in the recorded history of the human race. But tips on public speaking? That's something else, even if I never intend to need those tips.

Public speaking terrifies me. It has since grade school. That's the first time someone directed me to stand in front of a group of people and say something. I said a poem, if you must know. I suppose that's how many men and women began their public-speaking careers, and I'm sure it's how a significant number of men and women grew up with a dread of public speaking.

In my case, the fact that the first audience included my teacher, my best friends and my other classmates didn't ease the terror. Neither did the fact that I had memorized the poem. I still had to say it out loud, and I had to do that without giving in to the weakness in my legs. I was pretty sure everyone in the room could see me shaking, and I would have given pretty good odds that I was going to collapse before the second stanza. I lived through it, which was a good thing on the whole. Although if I hadn't, I wouldn't have had to remember how terrifying the experience was for the next time I had to recite in class.

In college German class, my roommate and I would sometimes drink wine before going to recite simple children's stories to our classmates. The stories were simple, but we were talking in German. And we were doing it in front of other people. I don't recommend drinking wine before an 11 a.m. class. It was stupid. But we were terrified.

Given that background, you can see why an out-of-the-blue article with five things never to say in public appearances caught my eye. I am currently holding to my vow of no more public speaking, but it never hurts to know a few tricks.

A public speaker, the article said, never apologizes, never admits to being tired or not feeling well, never admits to nervousness, never confesses to being unprepared and never responds to a question by saying, "I covered that already. Weren't you listening?''

Those are common-sense things to remember. However, I've never been in a public-speaking situation in which I wasn't nervous, I didn't feel unprepared and wasn't not feeling well. With all that crashing around in my head, it's difficult to remember not to apologize, even though I know that Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs on "NCIS'' will tell you apologizing is a sign of weakness. Whenever I've done any public speaking, weakness is a pretty good description of what I was feeling at the time.

I don't think I've ever jumped on a questioner for asking something I'd already covered. That isn't because I'm so considerate. It's because I get so nervous I have no idea what I've covered and what I've missed.

Five tips for public speakers makes sense, but it could be simpler. "One tip for public speaking: Don't.''