Looking back, it seems nearly inconceivable. Much of my work in three continents has been speaking. Diplomacy entailed endless talking. My work with a UN organization meant speaking with diverse people from different countries. My jobs with two multinationals, European and American, required persuading people, negotiating with people and even lecturing people for hours. Consulting too was nothing if not copious talking, with strangers, colleagues and recalcitrant clients. This was quite a break from my childhood experience.
Curiously, my parents believed in a Jeffersonian model of democracy for the family. They insisted on knowing and chatting with every one of our, the children’s, friends. Conversely, they wanted us to meet and know every one of their friends. So would soon come the turn for my brother and me to meet their guests.
My elder brother was glib and confident. He would say his name and readily volunteer any other tidbits the guest wanted to hear. In short, he would pass with flying colors. When came my turn to be introduced, I would suddenly find I had lost my tongue. Mother would gently suggest that I was shy and provide my name. Father would take a look at my face and provide also the name of my school and my class. I would quickly recede to a corner of the living room.
But father would not let go of me so easily. Come dinner time, he would place me right next to the special guest, be it an author or a musician or an actor. It was his way of getting me into the conversation. Occasionally I would find something brief to say or to ask a question. My preferred role, however, was to just sit and listen.
My mother then tried another ruse. I might have mentioned during dinner an interesting story I had read in the day’s newspaper. She suggested that I read it to the rest of the family after dinner. It soon became a ritual. Every night, after dinner, I or my brother read something out to the family and to any guest.
That is how I once read out a poem I had read and liked, Frost’s well-known The Road Less Traveled. That became my undoing. The guest might have said a word in appreciation, but my parents construed it as the highest kudo, as if for a Shakespearean actor. After that any guest that stepped into our salon had to hear me read Frost’s poem. I read it so many times that I didn’t have to read the text; I could recite from memory. My parents had gently made me into a performer.
A curious thing happened at the time. An uncle took me to see a Hitchcock thriller, but, we were late, and took me instead to a movie version of Richard III. I was disheartened to have missed Hitchcock and expected to be mortally bored. Imagine my surprise when Laurence Olivier began with a wicked soliloquy, delivered in an unforgettable clipped accent like a bombshell. I was electrified. And inspired. To be a performer was nothing to be laughed at.
It was this new realization that made me mention at the dinner table that the headmaster had announced in the school an interschool debate competition and asked for someone to represent our school. It had pleased me that several of my classmates had suggested my name, though I could not view the idea of an impromptu speech as anything but terrifying.
My parents had only to hear of the idea to ecstatically endorse it. They felt I could do it, in fact, I must do it.
It was a genuine surprise when, at the end of the debate, the panel of judges decided that I was the best speaker. My school got the coveted prize. My friends were ecstatic. Mother tried, embarrassingly, to hug me in public; I quickly disengaged myself. Father said simply, “I knew you could do it.”
My speaking days had started.
The greatest surprise for me that special day was the comment of the panel chairman that I merited the medal because of my “natural ease” in making my presentation. Nothing could have been further from the truth.