I began in the insurance business when I was twenty-seven. As I look back on my path, I felt as though I knew nothing and nobody. But thanks to many mentors, and learning from great speakers at industry events, I succeeded. When a friend suggested that I take the Dale Carnegie Public Speaking Course, memories flooded in of the talk I gave in church as a twelve-year-old and the surprising realization that knees really can shake in fear.
Frankly, the Dale Carnegie course sounded antiquated and unlikely to benefit me. I looked around for other classes or resources that might help me improve my public speaking skills and didn't find much.
So, I enrolled somewhat hesitantly in the fourteen-week Dale Carnegie course, which was at least close to my house, in a conference room at the local Holiday Inn. There were about twenty students, mostly young, from all walks of life, including a young woman who worked at a local gas station.
The course, taught by Jay Houseman, was terrific, even if a bit frightening. Jay was an enthusiastic teacher and as good as any college professor. He shared much about himself and the skills needed to speak in public.
We were given all of the Dale Carnegie books and were required to read each over the fourteen weeks. Dale had begun teaching his course in 1912, at the YMCA in New York City, where he was living, broke at the time. He created the course in trade for his food and lodging at the Y. Dale's greatest book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, has been in continuous print for over eighty years, a masterpiece about relating to others. It is still extraordinarily relevant.
Each night of the course, we were required to give a two- to five-minute speech in front of the class on a subject assigned the week before. Our speeches were then evaluated by the instructor and the class, and the best speech was awarded a nice-looking two-dollar pen.
Each week came and went with fearful young speakers, including me, rambling their way through brief talks on random subjects. And each week, I came home without a prize, though, as the weeks went by, we all became better speakers.
One evening, Jay announced that the next week's speaking topic was thinking on your feet and that we would have no advance notice on what we were to speak about. When it came time to speak, there was a hat filled with index cards. We drew a card two minutes before our own two-minute talk, and mine simply stated, Appliances. I felt my spirits sink, but then had an idea. And this is what I said, more or less, in my speech.
"I got tired of opening my garage door when I came home from work and decided to buy and automatic garage door opener at Home Depot and install it myself. I mean, I'm pretty handy, and how hard could it be, right? It was hard, and took me all day to do it. When the grand moment came to open my garage door electronically, I was excited. An of image of life of comparative ease lay before me as I pushed the button. The door stayed where it was, though there was a lot of noise coming from above. I looked up just in time to see the garage door opener itself raise slowly to the ceiling. I pushed the button again, and it went back to its original position. The garage door didn't move at all and seemed to be mocking me. I tried it again with the same effect.
I went inside and called Frank Dettenmaier, my lifelong friend and handyman. Frank came over the next day and did what handymen do, and in about an hour everything was working properly. The mockery was over. Now the garage door and opener knew who was boss, and it was Frank, but I got to enjoy the benefits."
I got a nice round of applause...and the two-dollar pen!
That class has served me well over the years. I have spoken in public hundreds of times since then, and the skills I learned in that humble class have greatly expanded my opportunities. I overcame my fear of public speaking and gained confidence when I sorely needed it.
By the way, the young woman from the gas station was easily the most frightened speaker in our group. She went on to become very successful in her own right.