My So-Called Public Speaking Career

A friend recently asked me if I had done anything specific to develop public speaking skills. Though the answer is technically no, it’s just something I naturally enjoy, the question did prompt me to reflect on some highlights (and lowlights) in my speaking career.

1975: I asked if I could say grace at Thanksgiving dinner. I “surprised” the crowd by singing the ABC’s in my doll Gloria’s voice, several octaves above my normal register.

1980: I ran my own school, attended by neighborhood kids, and somehow managed to keep several squirrelly kindergarteners entertained and educated for several hours a day. Inside! In the summer.

1987: I delivered my high school valedictory address on the “daring” theme of how we were butterflies emerging from our cocoons. I managed to keep my cool and deliver my earnest, trite teenage speech while being attacked around the ankles by savage mosquitos.

2001-2008: I had numerous opportunities to deliver a “gong speech” at Cranium, which is how we celebrated company milestones such as new hires, new products, and awards. My most memorable (though not my best) was the one where I got streaks-of-mascara teary welcoming our new publishing partner. In my defense, I was seven months pregnant, I had just hosted an intense two-day kick-off meeting, and I had walking pneumonia. I can safely say that this particular combination is unlikely to repeat itself.

Catherine wearing Cranium brain helmet
Sometimes I even gave gong speeches wearing the brain helmet. It’s actually quite heavy.

2008: Soon after Cranium’s acquisition, I flew to Hasbro’s headquarters in Pawtucket to introduce Cranium to a packed crowd of executives and a mix of curious/skeptical/excited employees. A deadly combination of time-zone change and insomnia meant that I got about 1.5 hours of sleep the night before. The Hasbro exec appointed to oversee the transition hovered anxiously, cutting slides deemed too “wacky” and–two minutes before I went on–letting me know my allotted time had been slashed from 45 minutes to 15. It went well, however, and the Cranium team was nominated for a Hasbro “Inny” award for giving outstanding presentations.

2010: My inspirational and much-loved grandfather died at the age of 103, and I delivered a heartfelt eulogy–miraculously, without mascara streaks. You can read the text commemorating this remarkable man here.

August 2011: I delivered my first “Ignite” talk, “You Are Not Your SAT Score” to an all-ages crowd at an outdoor venue. This was partly to spread the “multiple intelligences” message that there are lots of ways to be smart and partly to demonstrate to my kids that I can do more than make quesadillas to order. It was also my first time giving a talk without being in control of the clicker–the slides advance automatically every 15 seconds, whether you want them to or not. (Holy cow…have you ever tried that?) My endless practicing paid off, though, and I’m still thankful that I only came close to stepping backwards off the stage in the middle of the talk (spatial intelligence is not my strong suit.) You can watch my Ignite talk here.

On the stage at Ignite Seattle 15 (image: Ronald Woan)

October 2011: I was invited to be a featured presenter at the Red Pencil in the Woods conference. I put together a talk called “Twitter: A Cocktail Party for Word Lovers” and had a fantastic time demystifying Twitter for a terrific group of editors and writers. The best part was seeing the event hashtag catch on during the session and to see all the conversation that kept going for weeks afterward!