Anyone with any experience in public speaking should find this little nightmare fascinating.
I don’t get terrified easily. There have been many moments of fear in my life, but sheer, stomach-churning, nausea-creating terror? Not often. I want to tell you about a moment of sheer terror that I experienced a number of years ago. If you can believe it, it involved Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General of the United States.
It happened at Wheaton College in my hometown of Wheaton, Illinois. A friend of mine, British film director Norman Stone, and I had been asked to be the principle participants at an ethics forum that was held each year on the college campus. It was an honor to be asked. The topic for that year was ethics in the entertainment industry.
The main activity was an all-day event in which we participated in various seminars and discussion groups. In attendance were academics, students and other interested people, both from the community and other parts of the country. Norman and I enjoyed ourselves immensely. The evening dinner came and more people arrived. Among them was Dr. Koop. I discovered that he was a member of this ethics forum. Needless to say, I was impressed. However, shortly after the meal began, I experienced that moment of sheer terror. While I was eating I was informed that, at the conclusion of the meal, we would be adjourning to an auditorium, where I would be giving a formal address. As was their custom, at the conclusion of my address, none other than Dr. Koop would give a formal response to what I had said.
There was only one problem. No one had informed me that I was going to be giving a formal address.
Somehow that minor detail had slipped through their organizational cracks. I can tell you that I am a very experienced public speaker. I majored in speech at Northern Illinois University. I have been speaking before groups of all sizes since I was in junior high. I have worked on air in radio. But as I sat there at dinner, none of that mattered. Sheer terror swept straight through me. There was no getting out of this. No excuses. No way to beg off. A lot of people had come specifically for this evening. If I didn’t speak everyone was going to look really, really bad, especially me. Dr. Koop had flown in for the purpose of giving his response to what I was going to say.
BUT WHAT WAS I GOING TO SAY?
I think for a moment I had an out-of-body experience. I know I wanted to leave my body and go somewhere far, far away.
This wasn’t some twiddling impromptu romp in front of a bunch of friends and colleagues. This was an audience of brilliant people and the former SURGEON GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES was going to be listening to my every word AND THEN HE WAS GOING TO TALK ABOUT IT. I could imagine him saying, “Who brought this freaking idiot from California? No intelligent person could respond to his gibberish, so I’m just going to sit down.”
Needless to say for me, all eating stopped. I didn’t want to eat, I wanted to throw up. My wife, who was with me, said it looked like I was having a very quite, slow-motion heart attach. Instead of throwing up, I picked up a napkin and a pen and went off by myself, praying desperately. I had precisely 20 minutes to create a “formal address.” Well, for better or worse, I did it. Thankfully, the subject was one that I knew well … Hollywood and the ethics of the entertainment business. I don’t remember anything I said. When I was finished Dr. Koop stood up and gave a response, which was thoughtful, gracious and made it sound as though I had actually said something worth considering.
Dr. Koop is gone now, but that is how I remember him – kind, thoughtful, gracious, extremely intelligent and a powerful presence. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to meet him. I just wish I had known that I was going to have the opportunity a day or so in advance.