Is Anybody Out There?

Photo of a woman in a wheelchair speaking into a microphone. She is seated behind a podium with a red banner which reads "Light Up Rotary."
I am no stranger to speaking to Rotary Clubs or Conferences about my year as an exchange student.

I would like to thank everyone who sent me a message of encouragement prior to my presentation at the Rotary International North American Youth Exchange Network (NAYEN) conference last weekend. Some of you have sent email asking how it went so I thought I would write a follow-up about the experience.

First, I must express appreciation to Dennis White for putting my name forward as a possible speaker for NAYEN. Dennis is a psychologist and Rotarian who has been conducting research on the long-term positive effects of youth exchange. I met Dennis at the Rotary District 7170 District Conference in 2014, a conference which celebrated the District’s commitment and participation in youth exchange for more than fifty years. Dennis shared his research findings and I shared my unique story as one of the first disabled students to successfully complete an exchange year with Rotary International. At the end of the conference, Dennis told me about NAYEN and suggested I think about attending. Little did I know this would take the shape of an invitation to speak at NAYEN. Thank you Dennis for thinking of me and for allowing me to share my story with a wider audience.

With my broken leg making air travel impossible, I knew I would need to utilize technology like Skype or a webinar platform to be “present” at the conference. I have used Skype before, but mainly for one-on-one conversations or meetings with small groups. When presenting to conferences or large groups, I have always been on site, directly in front of my audience.

Last Saturday, I dressed in “work clothes” above the waist (nobody would see my fleece penguin pajama pants and slippers!), styled my hair, and put on lipstick for the first time in almost two months. I was reminded of the times my mom came to pick me up late at night after a high school marching band or orchestra trip, arriving at the school in her bathrobe and lipstick. At least I know where it comes from.

The Skype connection was clear and at 8:50 PM, Kevin (the NAYEN technology wizard) called me to tell me I was on. I had a quick glance at the audience of 475 people, seated at round tables in a hotel ballroom, as the emcee gave a brief introduction. After establishing they could in fact hear as well as see me, I shared my screen and began to talk.

Like most speakers, I rely on audience feedback to let me know how I am doing. Are they yawning? Are they laughing at things I meant to be funny? Are they checking their phones because they are bored? Are they making eyes at the person sitting across from them? When you are on stage in front of an audience, those visual cues are helpful. Last Saturday, I did not have visual cues from my audience.

Even more important, I did not have audio cues either. Feedback from my voice being projected into the ballroom was distracting to the audience and me, and Kevin muted the microphone on his end. I knew this might be a possibility as we had discussed it during our test run the day before. While I knew it might happen, I had not really considered what it would mean to be completely cut off from my audience. I have experienced similar situations, when all lines have been muted while I have been recording phone training sessions or webinars for work. But formal work recordings are different, because in those instances I am usually conveying required information instead of telling a personal story.

In the silence of my apartment, I began feeling a bit like I was speaking to an empty void. I did all the things I often encourage other speakers to do. I smiled and repeatedly told myself to slow down (my natural rate of speech is fast). I paused frequently at appropriate times, and kept an eye on the clock. Yet without the audible and visual cues from my audience, I had to assume my message was making it through and just keep going. I must have done a decent job though, because the audience responded enthusiastically at the end of my speech. It was a relief to see and hear them, to reconnect with them briefly before signing off and going to bed.

Ah, the exciting life I lead. The audience was going dancing while I was collapsing on my pillow. This was an unexpected perk of not being at the conference. I’m not kidding either. I shut off my computer at 9:29 PM and was in bed by 10:00. That doesn’t happen when you are on site!

Looking back on the experience made me think this week about how often we communicate without taking time to wait for feedback from our communication partners. How many times do we turn away from someone, missing an important facial expression which would provide a valuable clue about how that person is feeling? Do we listen, really listen, when we interact with others? Or do we just project our message hoping it will be received by those able to hear it? How do we know our meaning has been understood and received by those we want to reach?

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the conference, even though I missed out on being present in person. I learned many valuable lessons from the process which will help me become a stronger public speaker. Each time I speak, my audience helps me grow and (hopefully) improve.

Current status: Enjoying one more day of rest before returning to work part-time from home on Monday! I plan to spend the day learning to knit and purl while watching re-runs of Downton Abbey episodes, in preparation for tonight’s series finale. Will Edith find love at last? What will become of Mr. Barrow? Did you ever imagine I might feel bad for poor Mr. Barrow? And who will I quote once the Dowager Countess is gone?

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