Un-accustomed as I am

Apparently, fear of public speaking (glossophobia for those who are interested in official labels) affects 75% of the population. Clearly that’s not an issue for Bill Clinton or Barack Obama (or even Michelle). And I am happy to say I also belong to the fearless 25%, but that wasn’t always the case. I had no problem getting up on stage but somehow being the lone person behind the podium with a sea of people (hopefully) hanging on my every word did not appeal to me.

Probably because I didn’t have much else to do, when I was living in Saskatoon I decided it was time to master the art of public speaking. A person more sensible than me would have joined Toastmasters. I chose the jump-in-with-both-feet method instead.

Also because of the extensive time on my hands in the Paris of the Prairies, I kept up with my professional reading and monitored the calls for speakers at conferences in my field. I must emphasize that this was not an idle pastime in the pre-internet era.

Somehow the National Online Meeting (organized by the International Journal of Online Systems) caught my eye. The theme was ‘word-oriented databases’. What other kind could there be, you may ask? Without digressing into a technical discussion, this concept was on the bleeding edge in 1983 and wiser people than me eventually recognized that the ability to search for specific words and combinations to get access to information was the next ‘killer app’. But that’s not today’s topic.

The other reason that the National Online Meeting got my attention is that it was to be held in New York City. As we all know, it is sometimes easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, so I figured that if I got accepted to speak my employer would have no choice but to cough up the travel expenses. All I had to do was pick a topic, write an abstract, and wait to see if I hit the bull’s-eye. My paper was titled “Build your own database: Using database management systems for custom applications”. Clearly revolutionary stuff. Or at least the Online Meeting thought so because they offered me a speaking spot. As they say, be careful what you wish for. All I needed to do was write the paper and figure out how to pull together some visuals in the pre-PowerPoint era. Oh yes, and tell my boss he was on the hook to send me to New York. And address the small issue of lack of public speaking experience.

I arrived at the conference a day early to allow ample time to regret what I had gotten myself into. I guess they figured that my topic would be a barn-burner, so my session was scheduled for the grand ballroom, which sat about 500 people. I took the stage at the appointed time and I have no idea what I said or did during my allotted 45 minutes until I got the signal to wrap it up. All I do know is I did not die nor was there any evidence that I babbled incoherently.

As a result, I got published for the first time in the official proceedings (which I still have and my submission is actually pretty good), and I never again paled at the thought of public speaking because nothing could possibly be as hard as making your debut in front of hundreds of people in New York. Perhaps I should have booked Carnegie Hall.