Ask who enjoys speaking before an audience, and my hand never shoots up.

Ask who enjoys speaking before an audience, and my hand never shoots up.

Some people may bounce in their seats and use one hand to hold up the other as high as possible while mouthing "I do! I do! I do! I do!" but I've never been one of them. I stick with the majority, trying to look small and nonexistent while thinking, "Not me! No! No, no, no, no!"

It's true that for a while in elementary school I hadn't developed enough self-consciousness to mind talking in front of the class.

Even then, though, my voice appeared to know what a risk it was taking, even if I didn't, and book reports would emerge from my mouth as lightweight and feathery as a dandelion gone to seed.

"Louder!" my teacher would snap from the back of the room.

Too well I recall the day I was elected class secretary, a minor triumph quashed when Mrs. Unger reacted as if her favorite candidate had lost, which was probably the case.

"Well, when you read the minutes, you'd better speak up!" she said. If she could have demanded a recount, she would have.

Soon after that, the rest of me learned to fear public speaking as much as my voice did, and on those rare occasions when it couldn't be avoided, I babbled and blurted and bumbled and blathered my way, if not to a recognizable conclusion, at least to a point at which I could sit down, shaky in the knees and light-headed from the sheer hideousness of the experience.

That was some years ago.

While I'm certainly no expert at public speaking, as anyone who has heard me will enthusiastically agree, I like to think I've improved. I can stay conscious while speaking, I can keep such wits as I have about me and I no longer hear my own voice as it might sound on a seven-second delay from the bottom of a well. I can remember that while anonymous commentary on electronic media can be ruthlessly vicious, people in person are almost always friendly and kind.

Leaving out those who orate for a living -- politicians, ministers, college professors, standup comedians -- on the public-speaking chart, I'd put myself on the low end of medium. I'll never be Barack Obama or Robin Williams or Billy Graham.

I could join Toastmasters or take a college speech class or search for tips on the Internet but the fact would remain: When it comes to public speaking, I'm a pretty good writer.

Still, I'm not the terrified stick figure I used to be. As a public speaker, I'd put me at OK. Just OK, but OK.

At least, that what I thought before a couple of women approached me awhile back.

One had invited me to give a talk a year or so ago. Her friend had been in the audience.

They reminded me of the speaking engagement, which I remembered.

I had shared some columns, people had laughed in the right places, and later, I had answered a flurry of audience questions. I'd had a good time, and I said as much to the women.

"You talked too fast and no one could hear a word you said," the friend said.

Oh dear. I wonder where this puts me on the public-speaking chart.

Margo Bartlett is a ThisWeek Staff Writer. Contact her at mbartlett@thisweeknews.com.

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