True story. When I was second in command at a non-profit the executive director decided to make all the professionals in the company take speech classes. Our speech teacher was a well-spoken, lovely woman with a long history of acting in the proper sense. She did Shakespeare. In fact, she apparently did a legendary performance as Cordelia in King Lear in some New York repertory theater. This brilliant woman of the spoken word was now my speech instructor.
The first assignment for the group was to compose quick notes in five minutes that we would then transform into a three minute speech wherein we were to describe ourselves, our goals, our aspirations – in short our life. It seemed like a painful exercise. In fact, I think I outwardly groaned. And then, in the midst of misery, I realized that speech writing was an exercise in creative writing. It was a chance to put a creative twist on my life.
This was my speech (word for word as it was recorded):
My funeral will be a blast. I insist on being buried in roller skates since my fondest memories of childhood took place in a roller rink. The priest will say these words and only these words: “May her soul reach the hot beaches of the universe”. After these words are spoken, Dancing Queen by Abba will be played and the bar will open. I will be dead. But that doesn’t mean my friends can’t have fun, remember me fondly and get hammered. I want to leave in the same unique way I was brought into the world.
I was born in the middle of a freak thunderstorm one week before Christmas in Southern California. My mother was in distress while in labor and by mere proximity, so was I. I was not expected to live but my mother was nevertheless helicoptered into Loma Linda University hospital where a team of obstetricians’ went to work to save mother and child. In the end, I turned out fine. My mother a little less so but I was just dandy. I weight 11.5 lbs and was 24 inches with a full head of hair. I looked at least three months older than all the other babies in the ward and when I was hungry I screamed louder than all the other babies. Clearly, I was going to survive.
Birth and death mark the beginning and end of our lives. The beginning and the end make bold statements about the middle of our lives. I don’t consider myself a survivor but a thriver. I have been as passionate about the course of my life as I was as a newborn first grasping at the world. I consider life to be as fun as I hope my funeral to be. I don’t give up easily and everyday seems like a day for creative enlightenment. My life is my art.
So the speech instructor gave me a ten for creativity and uniqueness but a five for presentation. Over the course of a few days I would learn the craft of public speaking. I would not master it but I was made to understand that the words you speak are as important as how you say them.
I was recently watching Steve Jobs give an inauguration speech to Stanford University. His delivery, if you were being critical, could have been more polished. But it was the content of his speech that had the audience riveted. He talked about his birth, his life, dropping out of college, taking a graphics art course, starting Apple and everything that came after. Steve Jobs was reassuring to the thousand or so graduates. He said, “You will connect the dots.” I also re-watched David Foster Wallace give his inaugural address at Kenyon College. His speaking skills were not perfect but the content of his speech was subversively brilliant and what I remember most was that, “You can choose how you think about things.”
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