There is no word in the English language that demands completion more than the word “country”.
This is particularly true when you are giving a lecture to about 300 post graduate marketing students, and you are blessed with a stutter. People are, in general, more afraid of public speaking than dying, and I can tell you, vocal suspension provides a brand of terror that has no equal.
I was 27, working for an Australian machine tool manufacturer in Birmingham, and giving a lecture on the topic of “Marketing Australian Technology to the world” at Warwick University in Coventry, England. The opening greeting and first few sentences of the lecture had gone well. Then I intended to lead off the next point with “in my country, marketing technology abroad requires removal of barriers to entry, including the tyranny of distance, and being able to demonstrate your product in-market.” Instead I stopped dead halfway through the third word. I never finished the sentence “in my country”. The first part of the word “country” sailed out beautifully, but sadly, the second part just never came. I was stuck, with nowhere to go, in a vacuum, and unable to take back my unfinished work. Eyes bulging, lungs inert, my life shrank into a single atom of nothingness, for what seemed like an eternity. The world stopped turning for that moment, resting on its axis, awaiting further instructions. It was truly one of the lowest points of my existance. There were no warning signs, nothing to give me a chance to select an alternative word. I just froze.
The silence in the room was beyond description. Someone coughed awkwardly, but that was the only audible sound to be heard. My mind raced, trying to take in what I had just said, and what the room had just heard, and I was then trying to work out what the hell to do next. In the end, I just did what I always do. I stopped, drew a very deep long breath, waited for one or two unending seconds, regrouped, and then tried to say the same sentence again. The risk in getting stuck in exactly the same spot was very real, but If I didn’t restate it and get it right, the audience would not be able to dismiss my first attempt as a mistake, and they would be left with a word that is never spoken in public in polite company, let alone an auditorium. And that wasn’t the worst part. The two and a half words stood on their own merit as a legitimate sentence. I still shudder when I think about it.
My second attempt, from the outside, was projected with clarity and purpose. From the inside, my mind continued unpacking suitcases of unshackled terror. Thankfully, the sentence was complete this time. The audience was more relieved than I was. Far more relieved, in fact. They exhaled audiably. They had been holding their collective breath in rapture, not sure what was going to happen next. Their faces peered back at me, motionless. I definitely had their attention. There was a lecturer sitting in the front row directly in front of me, dressed in all his pomp, and he looked up from something that he had been reading and peered over his bi-focals directly at my face; but he fixed his stare unblinkingly on my lips rather than on my eyes, willing out the next sentence. I was thinking along similar lines. Get some words out, try and assemble them in some kind of order, check as you go to make sure the words belong in the dictionary, and keep talking until you are satisfied each sentence can hold its own as a structural string. Then get back to the topic and move onward and updward. It worked. The sentences were flowing well now and the mechanics of thought and language were back in sync, and I knew from that moment that I had turned a monumental corner. Something about taking a lemon and making lemonade.
This will sound strange, but despite the chaos that had only just played out, I started enjoying the new moment, and began moving and gesturing confidently, using tone and expression in my voice, raising and lowering at the right moments, pausing for effect, and introducing lighter moments where appropriate. I was back in the game, in control, and the remaining 40 minutes of the lecture was without incident. At the end of the lecture I threw to the audience for questions, and I was completely unprepared for and overwhelmed by the response. A sea of hands immediately shot up, raised high above heads. To my disbelief, question time went almost as long as the lecture itself, for another 30 odd minutes. The questions were thoughtful, on topic, resulting in healthy robust discussion, and quite a few moments of levity. On reflection, I think they understood what had happened at the beginning at the lecture and wanted to let me know that it was Okay. So what had started out being one of the worst days of my life finished up being one of the most rewarding, and one that I will never forget.
After the lecture, the room emptied into a large dining room with long tables set up for lunch. Guests seated near me said they enjoyed the lecture and some also acknowledged that it had got off to a bit of a shaky start. A guy sitting opposite me said “You obviously have a stutter, right?”, which opened up the conversation on speech impediments. I am always happy to talk about my stutter and it makes people around me more at ease when the topic is out in the open. Inevitably the conversation drifted happily on to cricket, as the Ashes tour of 1989 was in full swing in England at the time, and we Australians were making unexpected progress against the favoured English team, and would later go on to win the series convincingly.
The biggest moment of the day, however, occured in the street after the lunch as I was making my way back to the carpark. As I fumbled for my car keys, a man started waving at me from the other side of the street. He seemed anxious to get my attention. I waited for him to cross the road, and as he approached me, I retraced my steps in my mind, wondering if I’d left something behind or forgotten to do something. The man looked to be aged in his mid to late twenties, roughly the same age as myself, medium height and thin, well dressed with ginger curly hair. What was most noticable about this man was that he was crying. When he was close enough he reached out and grabbed my hand with both of his and started shaking mine madly. The tears streamed down his cheeks. I had no idea what was going on until he started to speak. His words stammered out with great difficulty. I wanted to finish his sentences for him but knew from experience that he really wanted to finish them himself, and eventually he did. Through his tears and stammerings he said something I will never forget.
“All my life, all I have ever wanted to do is what you have just done; to have the courage to stand up in front of a whole lot of people and give a talk … now I know that I can do it.”
Then he thanked me again, released my hand, and walked away. That was over 25 years ago, and I can still see his face, and I can still hear his words. I often wonder if he ever achieved his goal. After seeing his passion, however, I have no doubt that he did.
I felt on that day, that I had made a difference.