Pearls of wisdom from the Buddha of showmen

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A casual acquaintance of mine (I’ll call him Cal Tripken), who makes a good living on the motivational speaking circuit in Toronto, sits across the table from me, picking calamari out of his teeth with a dessert fork.

“Sorry, dude,” he says. “I still don’t see what your problem is.”

Lunch is over and the cheque has arrived. I have a column to write, but I reckon I still have enough time to reiterate my predicament once more.

I have been asked to give a keynote address at business convention, I explain. I can say anything I want as long as it’s not scatological, pornographic or racist. My problem is that, in recent years, I have developed a morbid fear of public speaking.

Oh sure, I can write a screed for my city’s daily newspaper or for CBC radio that would, and often does, make a politician’s blood churn cold with rage, or an anti-shale gas activist’s dander jump like fleas from his overheated scalp. It doesn’t bother me at all; I sleep great.

But when faced with the prospect of speaking before a live audience of more than 20 people, my throat constricts, my palms sweat, and I cast a frantic glance over at the baby barn at the back of my garden and seriously wonder whether, with a few last-minute renovations, it might serve me well as a hermitage, where I might hole up for the rest of my life.

The curious thing about all of this is that when I was much younger, I was a professional stage actor who had no trouble – indeed, I relished – holding the attention of a theatre packed with between 500 and 1,000 patrons at a time.

So, I ask Cal, what gives. . .dude?

“Well,” he says, putting down the fork, “Let’s parse this. . .You are chiefly a political commentator. . .Correct?”

Correct.

“So, that means that you presumably know something about the subjects that interest you. . .Right?”

Right.

“Bro, there you have it. That’s the problem in a nutshell.”

He still has a little strand of squid stuck between his lateral incisor and canine teeth, which I decide to ignore.

“What are you talking about?” I say as I check my watch and hand my credit card to the sever, as her several, earlier attempts with Tripken’s plastic produced inconclusive results.

“It’s as clear as the frog in your throat. . .You’re too authentic. Your audience doesn’t want to hear what you really think. They want to hear what they think, in your voice. That lets them off them off the hook from actually having to think for themselves.”

Dear Buddha, do go on.

“Deep down, you know this; you’re just not admitting it to yourself. You can write a speech in the privacy of your own boudoir and rehearse it until the cows come home. But if it actually comes from you, what is really you, it’s always going to sound hollow to you when you’re giving it in front of a live audience. . .Frankly, my friend, you’ve forgotten your theatre training. Nowadays, it’s all about the show, baby.”

So, I venture, maybe I should put a pillow under my jacket and prance around the stage like an ersatz Richard III sounding fury and melancholia during speech. Or, perhaps, I should channel Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and scream “Stella!” at the top of my lungs before I segue into a dissertation about how a higher HST rate in New Brunswick will pay for. . .well, streetcars.

“Whatever, dude,” Cal says as he grabs a toothpick. “How do you think Ronald Reagan became the most beloved President of the United States in 50 years. It wasn’t because he was a policy genius. It was because he was an actor. . .And what about our very own Stephen Harper? Do you actually think that hard-talking Steverino means half the things he says. The guy plays soft rock on the piano. . .And in a sweater-vest, no less.

Tripken gets up to leave. “Now, I really gotta go and brush my teeth.”

I smile and, as I retrieve my credit card, say: “Oddly enough, so do I.”

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