Public speaking sets at or near the top of many people’s list of greatest fears. I used to be one of those people.

In the days since, I have had the opportunity to speak at a few graduations and other school-centered events, as well as a handful of other engagements. But the road to speaking in front of folks was no easy one.

I vividly recall giving a book report to my class in the third grade. I stood at the front of the classroom and read my report. My eyes watered (that’s masculine talk for I cried a little), my muscles locked, and I read the page as fast as I could. No use prolonging an experience that was making me miserable.

A couple of years later, I was a member of the elementary academic team in Maysville. I sat there like a bump on a log, knowing the answers but lacking the confidence to speak up in front of all those people.

Well, I kicked the worst of mu competitive shyness in the next couple years and found my niche in the quiz bowl area. But my fear of standing in front of an entire room filled with people – trying to sound as if I were a confident, prepared expert on anything – remained.

What I need to learn – and through experiences in church and as a schoolteacher would come to learn – was that when you speak in front of a group, the room is rooting for you. People want you to succeed. They need you to relax and find your rhythm, so that they can all let their guard down and relax with you.

The exception to this is when or if an individual speaks on the political stage. In such circumstances, it’s pretty clear that about half of the folks at the speaking venue would enjoy seeing that individual fail. And that’s a shame, isn’t it?

But for the most part, audiences are gracious. People respond to words spoken to them. That being said, the old adage instructing the orator to Stand up to be seen, speak up to be heard, sit down to be liked rings fairly true.

The first real time I made a speech, one I gave at my own graduation over 25 years ago, my dad advised me not to think of what I was doing as public speaking. ‘Instead,’ he said, ‘just have a one-sided conversation with everyone there.’ Wouldn’t you know it? Ol’ Dad knew what he was talking about.

It’s like so many challenges in life, isn’t it? If you adopt the wrong perspective, you’re miserable; if you see the circumstances just a little differently, you’re confident. I give my language arts students the same advice today: if you think you are up and talking in front of people, you will be scared. If instead you visualize talking with your friends while they listen, the lion’s share of fear and uncertainty goes away. 

Could we apply this principle elsewhere, perhaps?

What about in the voting booth, where we often feel like we’re again choosing the lesser of two evils, we were to adjust our mindset to the task of exercising a freedom that people have died to ensure for themselves and others?

I used to coach in basketball that the great perk of playing good defense was that it gave us the best chance to be on offense again soon.

How about your own fears? Death is among people’s most frequent ones: what about instead of viewing it as an end to life, we began to consider it a necessary step to know what comes next? We might as well stop thinking about our daily work as boring tasks we must do to make a living and see it instead as the opportunity to accomplish something important.

You are what you eat, folks. If you feed your brain on negativity and fear, then you’ll be perpetually grumpy and afraid. Feed it on positivity and excitement, and you’ll look forward to every moment.

Matt Pearl owns and operates newspapers in King City, Albany and Grant City.