Shooting to hit the high notes in a key speech

Sunday, October 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:33 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Several weeks ago. I was asked to speak at a state convention. As a matter of fact, they asked me to be the keynote speaker. Gulp… I found my dictionary and looked up the definition for keynote. The second meaning listed said, “the basic idea.” OK, I thought. This is a convention of educational office personnel. I’ve been in the school office (in trouble) in every educational facility I had attended. I could talk about that. However, the first meaning of the word keynote read, “the lowest basic note.” That definition struck terror in my heart.

“Great,” I thought. “I’ll bomb, and my speech will be remembered as the worst in the history of the organization.”

I said I would be delighted to talk to the group — just tell me when and where. I was told the convention was in two months — plenty of time to figure out what I was to talk about.

Although I have written this column for almost five years, I’ve haven’t exactly been on a speaking tour. I have spoken twice to the seniors at our local center, but they were an easy crowd.

This keynote business is something altogether different. Many of the people in the audience didn’t know me from Adam. Most of them, I betted, had never read my column. Heck, there could be some who had read my column and hated it — and possibly me. What if I was booed?

I am a pro when it comes to procrastination, and before I knew it, it was the week of the speech. On Monday, I rationalized that I had four days to come up with something. On Tuesday, I figured three days was more than enough time. But by Wednesday I knew I had to start my research. The topic was “Reflections,” which is the basis of my column. But now my task was to hone it to a subject that was humorous or at least interesting.

Wednesday night the nightmares began. I was standing in front of a sea of non-smiling faces trying to get them to laugh. I began to laugh at my own punch line, but I was the only one. Gulp!

On Thursday night the nightmare was worse. Not only was no one laughing, but I was standing in front of these sneering faces — and I was naked! I woke up at 3 a.m. gasping for air. I had the tiniest thought of calling the convention chair and telling her that I had a horrible contagious illness, but once I had a cup of coffee, I dismissed that idea.

I spent the day holed up and jotting down things I thought might amuse my audience. I wasn’t about to stand up and read a speech, so I kept my note taking to just a few lines. And I wasn’t going to jinx my presentation by standing in front of the mirror reciting lines. I’d just have to wing it… and pray.

When I arrived at the hotel where the convention was being held I approached the sign-in desk and gave my name.

“Oh, it’s you,” the woman said in a tone I remember from grade school when I entered the principal’s office. “Come with me.” I’d heard those words before, too.

The first thing I noticed was how proper everyone was acting. I also noted that no one had a beer or a glass of wine in his or her hand. I was to sit at the head table (where everyone could stare at me while I tried to eat), and I was introduced to other “dignitaries.” They all had impressive titles. I was the speaker with no title.

The invocation and welcome were very proper and polite. Next came the meal. My throat was so constricted that I did something I haven’t done for decades — I didn’t eat (much). Then it was announced that dessert would not be served until after the keynote speaker. I was next on the agenda. The master of ceremonies announced me while 146 (I counted during dinner) pairs of eyes watched me. I stood and walked over to the mike and said, “No booze or chocolate? This is going to be a really tough crowd.”

That’s when they started laughing. The next 30 minutes were a blur. I have no idea what I said. All I know is that they laughed and occasionally it was a full-throttle belly buster.

At first I swore that I wouldn’t do that again, but the next day when I got on the scale I found I had dropped four pounds. Now I’ll talk to any group — just tell me when and where.

If you have a comment or need a speaker — hey, I’ll even talk at a family dinner — please e-mail me at

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