I was 10-years-old and alone on the stage.
Standing behind a podium looking out at stone-faced judges, I could barely see the rows of boys sitting behind them in the darkness.
The audience was packed into the hall, waiting silently in the hot August night for me to begin speaking.
The topic? "Should the United States Have Boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow".
I took a deep breath and started my speech.
This may sound like one of those stress dreams - you get to class and discover there's an exam you didn't prepare for. Or you're free falling with nothing to grab on to.
But it really happened. To me.
This was my trial-by-fire introduction to public speaking and speechwriting. It's an extreme example, but public speaking - whether you're giving a speech to an audience or speaking up in a group of co-workers during a meeting - can be just as nerve-wracking and filled with anxiety.
In fact, according to a study conducted in 2015 by Chapman University, 28.4 percent of Americans are "afraid" or "very afraid" of public speaking.
That puts fear of public speaking above fear of dying, murder by a stranger and flying.
In the years since my first experience with public speaking and speechwriting, I've written, delivered and listened to countless speeches.
During almost two decades of working in the U.S. Congress, I sharpened my speechwriting and public speaking skills.
I spoke to a full house at Harvard University covered by two network TV affiliates. I've delivered toasts, business presentations and pitches for volunteers.
And, yes, I've done the best man speech, too. I rocked it (at least that's what they told me!)
I know how to write, refine and deliver speeches tailored for any kind of audience. And I want to share what I've learned with you.
Insider's Guide to Public Speaking
37 years' worth of lessons on writing and delivering speeches
Over the years, I've found there are certain public speaking tips for making a speech effective. Here are a few of them:
- Know your audience: Start here. How you approach your speech - including the content you choose and your delivery - is driven by who's on the receiving end. Understand the expectations and characteristics of your audience.
- Be Authentic: Let the audience see your genuine emotion, enthusiasm and feelings as you deliver your speech. Natural gestures help - but only if they feel right.
- Use Humor: Depending on the audience and setting, humor can be very effective. An appropriate, well-received joke at the beginning can help you relax while establishing a connection with your audience.
- Organize your thoughts: Your speech should have a recognizable beginning, middle and end. No one wants to listen to a rambling stream of thoughts with no apparent structure.
And all those years ago, when I finished my speech, I remember waiting nervously for the audience's response.
They loved it.
Then the judges delivered their verdict:
And that was it - I've been hooked on speechwriting and public speaking ever since.