David Bruce: Public Speaking Anecdotes

Theodor Geisel, who is better known as Dr. Seuss, disliked public speaking because of an event that happened in his youth. In 1918, Theodor was a Boy Scout, and he was among the 10 Boy Scouts who had sold the most Liberty Bonds in his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. As a result, he and the other Boy Scouts were to be awarded a medal by former President Theodore Roosevelt. At the awards ceremony, President Roosevelt awarded the first nine Boy Scouts their medals, then he ran out of medals. Not knowing that Theodor was supposed to receive a medal, too, he asked Theodor why he was on the stage. Theodor ran off the stage, embarrassed. Later, when he was a successful author, his wife, Helen, asked him to accept the invitation to speak in Westchester, New York, at a women’s college. The audience waited two hours for him to arrive to give the speech, but he never showed up. Later, Mr. Geisel confessed to his wife that he had stayed in the train station because he was too afraid to go on stage and speak in public.

Ohio governor Jim Rhodes once gave a speech at the dedication of a building on the Ohio University campus in Portsmouth, Ohio. Unfortunately, before he spoke, many other people spoke, including the mayor, the head of the labor union, the state representative, and the chair of the city council. Therefore, when Governor Rhodes was finally able to speak, he told this story: An agricultural pest was threatening Ohio crops, so state troopers were under orders to stop every farm vehicle that came along. Troopers stopped a farmer and asked what he had in his truck. The farmer answered, “A load of manure, and John, my son.” A little further down the road, troopers again stopped the farmer and asked what he had in the truck. Again, the farmer replied, “A load of manure, and John, my son.” The third time troopers stopped the truck and received the answer, “A load of manure, and John, my son,” John looked up at his father and requested, “Next time, introduce me first.”

According to the Quakers, speaking in unprogrammed meeting is not something that can be planned; instead, it is a matter of divine inspiration. At least once, remaining silent resulted in a convert. Richard Jordan was a renowned Quaker preacher. Living near him was William Williams, who wanted to hear Mr. Jordan speak. He attended several First-day meetings, but Mr. Jordan remained silent. Thinking that perhaps Mr. Jordan spoke only during weekday meetings, Mr. Williams attended several weekday meetings, but again Mr. Jordan remained silent. However, the meetings—even though Mr. Jordan remained silent—had an effect on Mr. Williams, and he became a Quaker. Only then did the Holy Spirit again move Mr. Jordan to speak during meetings.

In 2007, when John McCain was running for the office of President of the United States, a man told him after hearing a luncheon speech, “I’ve seen in the press where in your run for the presidency, you’ve been sucking up to the religious right. I was just wondering how soon do you predict a Republican candidate for president will start sucking up to the old Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party?” Mr. McCain hesitated, then replied, “I’m probably going to get in trouble, but what’s wrong with sucking up to everybody?”

Comedian Don Knotts was once requested to emcee a dinner for fellow comedian Bob Hope. At first, Mr. Knotts was reluctant to emcee the dinner because he didn’t think he was that good at emceeing, but when the very persuasive promoter of the dinner told him that Mr. Hope had specifically requested that Mr. Knotts be the emcee, he agreed. However, when he arrived at the dinner, Mr. Hope greeted him, and then asked, “Hi, Don. What are you doing here?”

Aviator Amelia Earhart spoke her mind. Addressing the Daughters of the American Revolution, she told them, “You really shouldn’t have invited me here. I always say what I think, and you may not like it.” She then gave her thoughts about war: “You glorify it. You applaud the marching feet and the band and you cheer on the military machine. You really all ought to be drafted.” Applause for that particular speech from that particular audience was slight.

Kim Zmeskal started training in Houston, Texas, at age six, and the great gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi arrived shortly afterward. As a teenager weighing 71 pounds and standing 4-feet-5 tall, she competed for him. When the 14-year-old Kim won an award for Female Athlete of the Year in 1990, after becoming United States national champion, she amused the crowd by mentioning in her speech “people you’ve been with since you were little.”

Winston Churchill, a politician and a Noble Prize winner in literature, wrote his own speeches. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt listened to a radio broadcast of a speech by Prime Minister Churchill while he was working on his own speech with the help of three ghostwriters. President Roosevelt was impressed by Churchill’s speech, and one of his ghostwriters, Robert Sherwood, said, “I’m afraid, Mr. President, he rolls his own.”

Sometimes, the introductions of public speakers can drag on much too long. In Johannesburg, South Africa, speaker Maurice Samuel had to wait for over 40 minutes as Rabbi Rome went on and on in his introduction of a weary Mr. Samuel, who had just finished a long flight. Finally, the introduction completed, Mr. Samuel rose and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, while Rome was fiddling, I was burning.”

Conductor Otto Klemperer disliked being bored. At the end of a boring lecture on composer Paul Hindemith, the lecturer asked if anyone had any questions. Maestro Klemperer stood up, and when everyone looked at him, he asked, “Where is the lavatory?”

In 1941, Thomas Buckley ran for auditor of the state of Massachusetts, using a campaign speech that had only seven words: “I am an auditor, not an orator.” The speech was good enough for him to win several elections for auditor.

Speech-making advice from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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