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  • Susan Conrad

Lessons I've Learned from Public Speaking


The Inside Passage is a place I have hopelessly fallen in love with. It’s a place I am continually drawn back to, and it’s a place that I will never grow tired of visiting, regardless of how I get there. Occasionally a paddling trip draws me back to the Inside Passage, but more often I return to verbally and visually share my love of this place with anyone who will listen.

It’s been twenty-seven months since "INSIDE" was launched into the world. Since that time I have unintentionally set myself on a path to a career in public speaking. I’ve hauled my Mac laptop, laser pointer and lucky water bottle from the left coast to the right coast, up to beautiful British Columbia, and through a smattering of communities along the Inside Passage as far north as Skagway, Alaska. I’ve spoken at libraries, bookstores, adventure stores, bars, community halls, universities, ferry terminals, schools, conference centers, visitor centers, bike shops, kayaks shops, and on cruise ships.

My audiences have ranged from 5 people (two of who had showed up by mistake) to 650 people. I’ve spoken in rooms not much bigger than a large closet and on the massive stages of 4,000-passenger cruise liners where my images towered over me, astoundingly bigger than life.

It’s been a grand journey, this journey of the book. Paradoxically, I never intended to write a book, and there was a time not long ago when I was terrified of public speaking. This book journey has evolved into a phenomenal opportunity to inspire and motivate people, to share my love and passion of the Inside Passage, and to hopefully impart a takeaway message that will move people to want to cherish and protect this most amazing part of the world. Along the way I’ve tweaked and polished my slideshow presentations, studied Ted Talks, and internalized my narration until it flows like the currents of the Inside Passage. My efforts have not only shaped me to become a better speaker, but have helped me to become a better listener.

One of the biggest reasons I chose to solo paddle the Inside Passage was that I wanted to see how I would handle adversity. I squarely faced everything that was thrown in my path, notwithstanding a few hissy fits and meltdowns of epic proportions. But I got through it. Perhaps to see if I was still on my game, Neptune has tossed a few calamities my way in the public speaking world, reminding me that my Inside Passage journey has become a paradigm of my life’s journey.

Picture the following cockamamie crowning moments of my speaking career:

  • I’m lying on the floor moments before I’m scheduled to speak, with an ice pack on my face and gobs of blood-soaked paper towels scattered around me, trying to control a profusely hemorrhaging nose.

  • I’m watching—in slow-motion—an audience member frantically trying to save his coffee cup from spilling its contents onto my laptop, and in the process, trips over my projector cord, disconnects it from the power socket, and brings the entire setup crashing to the floor.

  • Delivering my talk while sedated with Vicodin. Yup. Turns out this opioid can give you intense dry-mouth; not ideal when speaking in front of 400 people. The night before I’d severely wrenched my back by improperly lifting a suitcase full of my *&^%$#! books. Nausea, profuse sweating and room spins immediately ensued, and the phrase “the show must go on” was the furthest from my mind.

  • Grimacing, and ignoring the throbbing pain in my right knee, I limp onto the stage of an 18-story cruise ship, after taking an embarrassing head-over-heels dive on its deck just moments prior.

  • Losing my voice the morning of one of my Guest Lecturer presentations on the Ruby Princess. After five hours of hot tea with honey, a long visit to the ship’s steam room, multiple salt-water gargles, and other various remedies, I took the stage feeling like aliens had invaded my voice box.

  • Masking my panic when I realize the image on the enormous screen behind me does not match the story that I’m telling, immediately followed by 30-foot-long black and white horizontal bars replacing my image, then total silence, in a room of about 650 people. “Houston, we have a problem,” about sums that one up.

The power of engagement I am privy to after my talks greatly offsets all of my notable on-stage moments:

  • The young man who came up to me and told me he is a brain cancer survivor and how my takeaway message of living life to the fullest resonated with him like none other.

  • The two woman who lost their husbands and were on this cruise to start their healing process.

  • Two young girls clutching my book to their chests waiting for autographs.

  • The elderly Polish woman with piercing eyes and a sparkly soul who leaned over the stairway railing and pointedly asked me “what really drove you to do this?”

  • The wine and conversation that flowed when the three people who had come to my talk by mistake (thinking a much more famous author was presenting that evening), took me to dinner at a vibrant, cozy restaurant on a bitterly cold night in Hamilton, Montana.

​My big fat takeaway? That perfection is an illusion. Through all of my on-stage challenges—and because of my vulnerability—I could immediately feel my audience's empathy. I was empowered to know that they were rooting me on. Because we’re all human. I’ve also learned that public speaking is not only about me being on stage. It’s about giving people a reason to care. That I am there to learn from my audience as much as they are there to learn from me. If I speak from my heart and share deeply from my soul, my stories will resonate with many people. And I am reminded that I thrive on challenge—that if I could paddle the Inside Passage, then I can do anything I set my mind to.

What are some of your current life challenges? What are you striving to continually improve—but not perfect?


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