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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Remote Viewing

Tonight I will be the keynote speaker at the North American Youth Exchange Network (NAYEN) conference. It is an honor to be asked to share my unique youth exchange story with the 400 conference attendees. I am excited and hope my words will inspire the audience.

Wait Denise – I thought you were still stuck at home because of your broken leg?

Yes, I am still home bound. Thanks to the wonders of technology I will be delivering my speech live from my dining room, via Skype.

This will be the first time I have addressed a large audience from the other end of a webcam. I have conducted meetings and interviewed using Skype, I have held webinar training sessions, but I have never presented to a large group in my slippers. (Trust me – I will be wearing slippers because shoes are still uncomfortable on my broken leg.)

I was initially invited to speak at the 2015 NAYEN conference. I would have accepted the offer, but I was already committed to making my Australia trip a reality. The chance to speak at the Rotary District Conference in Tasmania was an opportunity I could not refuse. Would NAYEN be willing to consider me for the 2016 conference?

Thankfully, they were. I eagerly prepared to travel to Cincinnati, Ohio, site of this year’s NAYEN conference. I recruited my friend Melissa to be my travel companion and Personal Assistant. We agreed on, and booked, flights which would get us to and from Ohio with the least amount of transfers.

Then I broke my leg on January 13. With the snap of a bone, plans had to change.

I did not want to back out of the conference again. I mean, I could have, and I’m sure people would have understood. But I already felt bad for not attending the conference in 2015, and I did not want to get a reputation as the speaker who never actually speaks when she is invited. Especially when it comes to a topic I am passionate about – the benefits of youth exchange, and how my exchange year positively changed my life. I felt so strongly about making it to NAYEN that it was one of the first things I mentioned after waking up from the surgery to fix my broken leg. My sister Sandy told me time and again not to worry about NAYEN, however I was determined to find a way to honor my commitment.

I am grateful to John, Ed, Kevin and the other conference planners who have worked to make it possible for me to fulfill my obligation tonight. After a successful test run yesterday, I am hopeful there will not be any technical glitches today. If there are, I know we will get through them. Twenty-five years ago, my exchange experience taught me how important it is to be flexible and creative (among many other lessons).

While I will miss being able to socialize with the conference attendees after my speech, I have to be honest and admit how relieved I am not flying to and from Ohio this weekend. My knee is certainly better than it was, but being lifted in and out of plane seats and aisle chairs would require high doses of pain medications. Speaking from the comfort of home, I can keep my leg elevated if I need to without needing mind-dulling narcotics. And I get to sleep in my own bed instead of struggling to get up on a high hotel mattress. In theory, this should result in me offering a more polished speech. All from the comforts of home.

Have you successfully used technology to solve an access problem? Share your story in the comments!