On Public Speaking

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of speaking in public. Since I love telling stories, my fear may have been one of the reasons for me becoming a writer.

Once upon a time it was enough to write a good book, paint a nice picture or contribute to the world’s scientific knowledge. No more. Now everyone has to be a showman of sorts.

I always hated public speaking—but now that I am a book author it has become part and parcel of my existence. As a matter of fact, to a certain extent, I have learned to enjoy it—and I have gotten to be good at it most of the time. Few of my listeners fall asleep and there always are a decent number of questions. Lately I even manage not to kill my own jokes. Last week, when I spoke about America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and their Astonishing Cultural Legacy in Northeast Harbor, Maine, I was relaxed enough and patiently waited for the laughs. But speaking is not enough. Today’s audiences are used to illustrations, which means that one has to master Power Point, Photoshop and other fancy programs.

One of my handicaps is the accent that I have been trying to shed for years. It seems to entitle anyone to whom I speak to ask me where I hail from. Since I moved to Brooklyn, NY some ten years ago, I have finally reconciled myself to the fact that I will always have an accent. When I first arrived in America I attended an English for Foreigners class at Columbia University. During the first class we introduced ourselves and identified our mother tongue. Most of us came from Belgium, Turkey, India, Thailand and Japan. One guy, however, got up and asked: “I was born in Brooklyn and hope to die in Brooklyn, so why, Professor, was I sent to this class?”

Twenty years later I decided to give my accent another try and registered for speech class at New York University. The professor again had us recite our CV. Believe it or not, one of my classmates got up and said: “I was born in Brooklyn, and so were my Mom and Dad, yet everyone asks me where I was born.”

“Well,” the professor answered, “here in the U.S. we consider Brooklyn a foreign country.”

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