by Charles Fleisher,
The Opportunities Guy
The All-Important Speech
“On a cold wet November day in 2005 I entered a room full of hundreds of people. In a panic the organizer asked me if I would be able to fill in for missing speaker. Wow! Really! I had never spoken to an audience anywhere near that size before. To my surprise, I heard myself say yes.”
The previous paragraph was the opening of my speech at the division level Toastmasters International Speech Contest in May 2012. On that May evening, as I spoke those words the presentation was going well. I got a laugh where I was supposed to and I felt a connection with the audience. The speech went on and I continued to have good audience reaction. I felt excited and exhilarated.
When I was finished I thought I had done the best possible. I was the second speaker and I was followed by a great speaker, Diane Parker, who gave a wonderful presentation and shared inspirational thoughts. I felt confident that the contest was down to Diane and myself. The tension within me grew as the judges left to tally up the scores.
When the chief judge returned he first announced the second place winner. It wasn’t me or Diane. I started to worry because if I wasn’t second and Diane was second then who’s going to be first. The chief judge announced the first place winner and again it wasn’t me.
I was immediately disappointed. I had spent an enormous amount of time and energy writing practicing and preparing for the contest and I hadn’t even placed second. I started doubting whether my efforts were worth it. I wondered what my future role in Toastmasters should be. Maybe it was time to move in another direction?
All the way home I kick myself over my loss. When I got home I had ice cream and pizza. These are my comfort foods. When I woke up I wasn’t feeling much better.
Around 9 AM I received a phone call. It was a high school that I had spoken to a few years ago. They were requesting me to speak later that day. I started coming up with excuses for why I shouldn’t go to the school. It was short notice. It was an hour drive. I was still feeling down over the contest loss the night before. But in the back of my mind I knew I should go speak to the students.
I broke my neck in a car accident and received a spinal cord injury over 24 years ago, and I have been speaking to schools about injury prevention since 2005. When I had spoken at the school a few years before, my speech was only part of a larger program.
Have you ever heard of a program called Every 15 Min.? Well, every fifteen minutes someone in the United States dies from a alcohol-related driving accident. This school has a program that brings that statistic to life.
Throughout the day someone dressed as the Grim Reaper walks around the school and every fifteen minutes takes a student out of the classroom and that student is not seen for the rest of the day. The student is presumed to have died somehow.
While this is happening, a team of students are putting together a video production simulating kids cutting school and drinking in the park. Later they get in the car and drive. They cause an accident where multiple students are killed and injured. Some of the students had been drinking, and they hit another car with students who hadn’t been drinking.
The police and EMTs arrive on the scene along with the fire department tearing up the car with the Jaws of life. The ambulance comes and takes them away. There is the scene at the hospital where parents break down after they are informed that their children have died, and others are told of severe injuries and paralysis.
There are other scenes that show students screaming and crying after hearing the news. At the end of the day the video production is shown to the entire junior and senior class in an auditorium. Afterwards, a few of the parents whose children were pulled out of class write imaginary eulogies of what they would have said at their child’s funeral. They also have a child who was pulled out of class by the Grim Reaper, come up on stage and address his parents with his regrets and apologies.
It’s a very powerful program! I cried and just about everyone else in the room did as well. You can see how clearly I remember it two years later. Well, that was the school that called me the morning after I lost the competition. They had scheduled this program again months before. They originally intended to have me speak for a few minutes. I was canceled without knowing why.
And then I received a call the morning after the competition. Apparently a few months back a recent graduate and some friends were driving when their car lost control and Nicole was ejected from the vehicle because she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. She was killed. They decided to cancel the Every Fifteen Minutes Program because they thought it would be too upsetting for some students and especially Nicole’s siblings who still attended the school. But they asked me that morning, if I would come in and share my experiences.
I spoke to 200 high schools who didn’t interrupt, or talk out of turn, even though there weren’t any teachers in the room for most of the presentation. I looked at them and saw their faces. They were listening. This wasn’t a distraction for them. One of them had been killed because she had been wearing a seatbelt. This was their reality.
Reality Check Immediately Adjusted My Perspective
Losing the speech competition was upsetting and disappointing, but nothing compared to what Nicole’s parents were going through. The high school presentation the day after the contest loss reminded me that my burdens are small in comparison. After I left the high school, my disappointment disappeared. I lost, but through practicing, and participating, I grew immensely.
If it hadn’t been for learning to speak at Toastmasters, I would never have been in front of those kids, with a chance to touch their hearts and with the possibly influencing them from making tragic decisions. Regardless of your current difficulties and perspective, you can use your obstacles. I’m challenging you to look, really look at your situation and ask yourselves what can I do to turn my difficulties into opportunities to improve my life and the lives of others?