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Definitely my worst speech ever

October 29, 2017

2I spoke in a teacher’s workshop for the Association of Christian Schools International, and the subject of speeches came up.   I’m a bit unusual in this subject because I do not teach separate classes of Speech and Bible;  I combine them both. In fact, tomorrow morning my Bible sophomores will be giving team speech presentations on the subjects of cults.

We have different types of speeches that the Bible student will endure present during the course of the year, with some being introductory speeches and others being a 30-second overview on a Bible doctrine. Students may present a verse commentary or a point of apologetics.  The classroom covers a wide range of orations.

But let me tell you about the most famous of Dr. Zockoll’s speeches.

The Distraction Speeches.

I strive to prepare my students for the later-years possibility of facing in-speech disturbances including hecklers, broken microphones, and crying babies.  And unruly teens in the back row.  Or a snoring senior citizen.  Or a hypochondriac with an unstoppable nosebleed.  You get the idea.

The Distraction Speech is a love/hate affair with students.  When it is your turn to give the speech and handle the distraction, it’s terribly nerve-wracking.  However, once you’ve finished, you find a great and dark delight in being part of the interference.

So, the question that comes back to me is: “Have you ever faced a distraction in your speaking career?”

And my scholarly answer of course is “Good grief, yes.  Dozens of times.”

Obviously, the next question is: “What was the worst distraction you’ve ever faced?”

Well, now, that runs a wide range of choices.

There was a college girl that went into a sneezing fit that wouldn’t stop.

I recall a trio of elementary kids who found delight in running and sliding down one rural church’s highly polished pews.  The parents pretended nothing was going on, and the kiddies ran and belly-slid down the long pine rows … while I was trying my best to expound on the book of Mark.

I remember a teen who unraveled a pen spring so that she could clean her fingernails while I spoke.  She slipped and rammed the wire through her thumb – and the wire couldn’t come out.  Blood and panic everywhere.

The there’s the sleeping six-year old child whose mid-nap flatulence filled the middle of a non-air-conditioned muggy country church auditorium on a sweltering summer night.  The kid must have eaten pure sulfur before falling asleep.  The stench was enough to melt mascara off of every woman’s face.

However, one stands out above all others.  Twenty years ago.  It was during a high school graduation dinner of 300 attendees in a Virginia academy’s auditorium.  The students were decked out in their finest:  full suits and bow ties, fine gowns and high heels.  The grads and friends looked great.  Even the parents put on a little extra flair to look nice for their children.

It was a church on a budget, but everybody pitched in to help.  The hall was nicely done with the money available:  crepe paper streamers, clean white paper tablecloths, tall candles nestled in glass candle-holders, and helium balloons of all colors tied to the edge of the stage.  The church wanted a nice graduation fete, but they also wanted to spend as little as possible.

No doubt that’s why they got me as a speaker.

Oh, the evening went along well enough.  The pastor had a stirring brief charge, two of the sophomores sang an enthusiastic if off-tune duet, the valedictorian gave a teary presentation of a poem she had written in a clunky iambic pentameter, a mom held a chocolate cake giveaway, three juniors performed a skit they had written that was fraught with inside jokes that very few people understood outside of a gang of seven teens who laughed uproariously while everyone else smiled in a confused way.

I felt uneasy when I notice that the evening was going on too long.  The program noted that the entire dinner and post-meal events would conclude by eight-thirty.  It was already a quarter past nine, and I had yet to speak.  Then some kid did a ventriloquist act.  His mom did most of the laughing.

It was past nine-thirty when it was my turn.

I rose to the stage and faced the students and noticed immediately that half of the audience members were half-lidded and yawning.  I was in trouble unless I really kicked things into gear.

I started off in an enthusiastic opening illustration, but it only partially woke the listeners.  I need to adjust, so I started moving across the stage.  I introduced some amazing stats about school graduates but saw a boy lay his head down on the table.  I was losing ground, and fast.   I needed a spark.

I got one, but not in the way I expected.

One of the less-social teens had moved to one of the tables to sit by himself and drift off into his own mental universe.  This included involving himself in whatever would occupy his freshman mind at the moment.

Now, I want you to review the description I gave you of the surroundings in the hall.  Included with the balloons and crepe paper were the worst two things you should ever put in front of the members of a teen banquet:

Candles and a paper tablecloth.  More specific, lit candles.

Lit with a flame.  Of real fire.

You guessed it.  The young Not-Yet-Common Sense youth pulled the foot-long candle from its perch and gazed at the flame intently.  Flames do wondrous things to the male species.

It makes them want to burn things.

But what to burn?  Oh, yes, something simple.  Like a paper tablecloth.

This he did.

I was into my second point when I noticed something in my peripheral vision:  a boy sitting stunned while a five foot high – mind you a five foot-high flame ripped down the tablecloth and increased by the second.  He was immobile, completely catatonic in the realization that he was virtually holding a bonfire in his lap.

Immediately every able-bodied adult grabbed his water glass and dashed for the table.  They started throwing their water in the direction of the flame, many so overly excited that they totally missed the flame and hit Senseless full in the face with water or some other nearby attendee.  There were shouts and chairs flying.  Someone tried to grab the tablecloth and roll it up; he got a face full of lemon water.

And I was standing there stunned.

It was all over in fifteen seconds, but I looked over and faced a section of people who were wet, angry, and breathing heavily.  They were stepping over broken glass, mopping their faces and looking at me expectantly.  How would I fix this mess?

I was groping for words.

“Well,” I gulped.  “I was always told that my speeches were fiery…”  I self-consciously giggled.

Nobody laughed.  Nobody.

I realized that I could go nowhere.  I closed the speech within the next thirty seconds, mumbled a “thank you” and slid back to the hotel to mull The Worst Speech Ever.

It was a miserable night.

And yet it was one of my best memories.

Why?  Because God taught me some great lessons that I have kept with me all these years.

The first thing I realized that there was nothing special about me that I couldn’t fall victim to an embarrassing and uncontrollable situation in a public setting.  These things happen to everybody.  I’m no exception, nor should I ever assume that I should be an exception.  The rain falls on the just and the unjust, you know…

Secondly , I also realized that I endured a profoundly humiliating experience and I lived through it.  It was a fantastic learning experience.  For example, if in the course of my public speaking career anyone should ever set  table on fire again, I will have a better punch line.

Thirdly – and this was most important – I realized that I could laugh at myself.  Look, I felt like a fool up there on stage with all of this nonsense going on, and for some reason I was made to blame for it.  In my pride I stomped around the hotel room that night in frustration for the first hour.  It wasn’t long, though, before I called my wife on the phone and joined her in a good deep laugh about the whole thing.

I looked stupid?  So what.

It wasn’t the first time, and – trust me on this – it certainly wasn’t the last.

Our great God gave us love, joy, peace, long suffering, and somewhere wedged within all those beautiful gifts is a sense of humor.  As in all the other gifts, we cannot enjoy them until we realized them and activate them in our lives.  This realization opens up a great relief to the Christian.

Oh, it was my worst speech. But I got so many things out of it.

Like being able to write a great story for you to read.



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