Tuesday, September 20, 2005

"Come Up Here And Say Hello"

The number one fear of Americans is public speaking. You know what Americans' number two fear is? Death. Death! How did death get to be number two? This means that a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. —Jerry Seinfeld

I signed up for this public speaking course because, well, I'm a pussy, and today was the first class. Let me describe the class in one word. Super-awkward. One hyphenated word. Frankly, I could not have been more uncomfortable if I'd peed on myself during class. Well, no, I guess that would have made it more uncomfortable.

It's called "The Confidence Course" and those Madison Avenue geniuses who wrote the New School catalog copy said it's something like "more than a public speaking course, this is a blueprint for life." I lack confidence, so I got sucked in to crap like that. I actually signed up for this other public speaking class at Union County College right when I got out of college, but I chickened out. I mean, it's a useful skill being able to speak in front of a crowd and I would've liked to take the class, but it's not my fault campus security wouldn't validate my parking. I mean, they might have validated it, had I asked, but I didn't. And then there was the Toastmasters meeting that at least wasn't totally mortifying.

I arrived forty minutes early and when I got up to the room, I hid in a corner. Literally. I don't know why — I didn't want to be the first person in the classroom (actually, I didn't want to be in the classroom at all), and I didn't want to stand outside the classroom door like there were ghosts in the room or something. It seemed best to stand alone in an alcove and hope that no one else afraid of ghosts runs into me there. Do we all see why I need to take this Confidence Course thing?

Okay, whatever, that was just me being a jackass. Eventually, I'm in the room and I pick a seat at this big conference table and a few people start trickling in. Then, still maybe fifteen minutes early, in walks The Presence. His name is Bob Danzig and he exudes confidence and sangfroid like I exude a healthy man-smell... er, smell. Bob walks right up to you and looks you in the eye and says, "Hi, I'm Bob Danzig. It's great to see you," even though he's just met me and honestly has no idea whether it is, in fact, great to see me or not. He shakes your hand with this death grip and immediately gets way, way, way too close. I'm more or less set to give him my name, rank, and serial number, "Hi, Jay Harris. Nice to meet you," a little move I perfected in college and Bob wants to know all our hopes and dreams and ambitions.

I should tell you a little about Bob Danzig. Bob was the CEO of Hearst Magazines for a number of years; after he retired, he became a professional lecturer and author of seven inspirational novels including Angel Threads, Every Child Deserves A Champion: Including The Child Within You, and There Is Only One You: You Are Unique In The Universe. That last one, I told to Anne around the time we started dating and she replied, "Thank God," and I knew right then that I loved her. Bob is essentially a live-action Chicken Soup for the Soul book, and as the seriously embarrassed owner of six standard Chicken Soup for the Soul books, two teen Chicken Soup for the Soul books, a college Chicken Soup for the Soul book, the travel-sized CSftS book, and two CSftS teen journals, I know how to spot 'em when I see 'em. Danzig has even written his own (probably) derivative CSftS book with the (definitely) derivative title, Vitamins for the Spirit. It bears repeating: Bob Danzig is BETTER THAN YOU.

Unlike some of us, Bob is not at all shy sharing details of his family life, but in short, Bob Danzig's family is BETTER THAN YOURS. Bob's wife of FORTY-SIX YEARS is a concert vocalist who wouldn't go back home with him on their first date. He has five wonderful children, all entrepreneurs — although Bob doesn't word it that way. In his words, "NONE of my children EARNS A PAYCHECK." One of his kids is a professional photographer, one's a musician (I think), one's a yoga guru who started her own super-successful business making knit sweaters in the styles of the forties and fifties and — just in case you're not quite getting Bob's point as he gloats about his family — she survived cancer as a teenager but lost her leg, bladder, and kidneys. So — and I just came out of a three-hour nap — Bob Danzig's offspring are BETTER THAN YOU.

Really. No wonder he's fucking confident.

Anyway, Bob sits down at the head of our conference table and he just starts having random conversations. There's four of us in the room and — again, like he cares — and asks, "How was your day?" He doesn't know what we do, he doesn't know if we have jobs, if we just got fired, if we lost our girlfriends, if we're drug dealers, if we have loved ones who died in the hurricane, if we work at the Holocaust Museum gift shop, whatever. He assumes (correctly) that we're going to want to tell him about our days. I assume (correctness unknown) that when he gets to me, he won't care. In any case, my day is "Okay," because I'm still a disaffected high school student and he's my mom.

Class starts and Danzig kind of lays out a summary: He's going to give us some "tools" to become more confident. Two things about Danzig's speech patterns. First, he uses variants of the phrase "tools to do such-and-such that will make you more confident" a whole damn lot. Every time he says it, I mentally replace the word "tools" with "liquor." And second, he throws students' names into his lecture, so he'd say something like, "...We're going to give you tools for making a speech, Jaaaaay." Combined with his supernatural ability to make eye contact, this is extremely disconcerting. The first time he did it to me, I shot upright in my chair like, "Oh, oh, okay, I'll give you my full attention.... Wait a second. I was giving you my full attention."

The first third of the class or so was Bob giving us these little Dale Carnegie tips for easier conversations. (By the way, if your emotional health in inversely proportional to the number of Chicken Soup for the Soul books that you own, then reading Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People before you've even graduated from high school makes you downright certifiable.) I'll give them to you, so your turd conversations can turn into gems. Smile. Use the other person's name, but in a natural way. Ask gentle questions. Make the other person comfortable. Be an aggressive listener. (I don't know what that means.) Take an interest in the other person. See how confident you are now?

This was all prelude to the inevitable dreaded ice-breaker exercise, mysteriously placed about forty-five minutes after the class started. Which ice-breaker would it be: the one where everybody takes a handful of M&Ms and has to say something about themselves for each one in your hand? Or would it be the one where everybody picks a revealing question out of a hat? No, in the spirit of confident conversations, it's the one where you talk to the person sitting next to you for five minutes or so and then you have to introduce them to the group. I was talking with this woman and she was asking me questions and I was coming up with confusing answers that were, in theory, designed to not make me look like an ass because that always works so well. Conversation time ended and introduction time began, and that's when I realized that... well, I didn't forget to get this woman's name, but I did forget to remember it. I was also too busy worrying about how I'd introduce her and how she's introduce me and how I wasn't being a good conversationalist to actually remember anything she said, which sort of defeats the whole point of this exercise.

Fortunately, before we all introduced ourselves, Bob had us each write our names and what we hoped to be getting out of the course on an index card, so I cheated and took a peek at Sandra's (yes, it was Sandra, now I remember...) name. I stood up and gave Sandra some incredibly lame and incongruous (and sweaty) introduction, and then shut the fuck up for the rest of the class.

Also, we learned about the importance of not worrying, but worrying well. Renaming your worry "Anxiety" and then remembering how you got through similar Anxietys. Or something like that. I was really too busy hating myself to pay attention.

Anyway, there's five more classes left, and I plan on getting totally hammered before the next one. I don't know what the plan is for next week — probably more stuff about worrying well. In the last three classes, we get to give presentations on an assigned topic. Won't that be confidence-building? I think if I want more self-confidence, it will just be easier to go out and buy a gun. Won't make me a better public speaker, though, but I get the feeling that when you're a gun-owner, people listen to you anyway.