The Blind Leading The Terrified

Up until the late 1990s, I was deathly afraid of public speaking. I can still remember how tough it was for me to get through my required speech class in high school. I was scared out of my wits!

Those memories came flooding back when I learned Aug. 7 is Professional Speakers Day. I’d almost forgotten how afraid I used to be. Things are different now. Just a month ago, I gave a presentation to my Mastermind group on Wayne Dyer (one of my favorite authors), and before the pandemic I regularly stood up in front of business groups and real estate agents to talk about tax resolution without breaking a sweat. I even have a live radio show! I can’t see my audience from the studio, but I know they’re out there listening.

I didn’t break free from my fear overnight. It took months of help from one amazing person: lecturer Bonnie Peterson at the University of Wisconsin Parkside. I met Mrs. Peterson when I went back to school for accounting in my 30s. I wasn’t a sheltered kid anymore, but public speaking still freaked me out. Her communications class was a game-changer!

Mrs. Peterson was legally blind but that didn’t hold her back as a teacher. Her hearing was off the charts, so she could tell right away if you were nervous, messed up your inflection, or were trying to cheat by reading off a piece of paper instead of just glancing at your notecards. The whole class helped keep people accountable, too. She relied on the students to give her feedback about having the proper eye contact with the class and any visuals that were used
during the speech.

Mrs. Peterson was smart, funny, and really loved her subject. She had a different approach to speech assignments than my high school teacher — she let us pick what we wanted to talk about! She just gave us a framework and let us run with it. I’ll never forget the day she asked us to give a famous person’s eulogy. I picked my favorite basketball player, Larry Bird, and pretended to be his teammate.

I was nervous and sweaty when I first stood up in front of the class, but before long, I got so into the topic that I forgot about my notecards completely. I was just talking off the cuff! Me! It was definitely the best speech I had ever given in any classroom environment. I couldn’t believe how fast the required five-minute minimum time went by. The other memorable speech from the class was when we had to demonstrate how to do something. I chose how to properly shoot a basketball, using the proper form, including body positioning and footwork; it was a piece of cake! I ended up with an A in Mrs. Peterson’s class. That was the moment my fear of public speaking flipped.

Like I said, today I talk in front of people all the time. I’m glad public speaking isn’t a problem anymore, because I love my Mastermind group and it would be a bummer if I couldn’t talk in front of them. The group includes more than 20 tax resolution professionals from across the country. We meet a couple of times a year in different states to brainstorm about business problems, discuss tough cases we’ve worked on, and swap advice on things like marketing. This summer, we got together in Dallas, and I ended up presenting in the “Hot Seat.” I didn’t freak out a bit!

I’m actually looking forward to getting back out there and giving presentations on tax resolution to real estate agents and business groups. During the pandemic, all of that stuff had to move to Zoom, and it will be nice to talk in person again. In the meantime, I’ll keep speaking up on my Saturday morning radio show. Tune in at 7 a.m. on AM 1050 WLIP to hear Mrs. Peterson’s lessons at work!