Few things get the juices flowing like speaking in a public setting. Here lately, I've had plenty of opportunity. Last year about this time, I found myself in the hallowed halls of a courtroom defending myself. The old saying about the person who represents himself has a fool for a client may be true, but depending on the outcome, don't tell the other attorney.
My feelings about the law and the courtroom in general have been akin to the way I feel about my mother-in-law when she's in all her glory: You don't intimidate me; you just scare me.
I get along famously with my in-laws. It's a learned art. Just like public speaking.
“Representing yourself in court is just like public speaking,” an attorney friend assured me. “You say what you've prepared, be respectful, but not fearful of the judge or the court system.”
The best way to describe it is the way a former publisher and editor told me one time. Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you told them.
Sounds simple enough. You're basically telling the person to whom you're speaking to what's on your mind, what you intend to say and then recapping what you have said.
Walking into the courtroom without legal counsel isn't advisable and I wouldn't want to do it in other circumstances, but necessity dictates otherwise at times. I walked in with a lot of preparation and plenty of prayer behind me — and even some moral support along for the long ride. Perhaps there was a circuit-riding barrister in my family tree.
Without a hired gun, I said what I had to say with authority and respect, repeated what I had said and summed up what I had just said. All the time, looking the judge's authority in the eye.
I learned a lesson that day. Speak up with authority and your case will be heard. Sometimes other folks are more qualified to speak on a subject, but if it affects you, you carry the authority to speak in the tone of your voice. Things that are important are carried in tones and stand by themselves. In most cases, the worst that can happen is they'll say, “no.”
Court is one thing. Speaking to teen-agers is quite another. Me and my wife and several others help teach the youth at our church on the eastern North Carolina coast. I did the same preparation I had for the court date, prayed and waited to be eaten alive.
The subject was weeds. How weeds, if not killed early in the season, grow to be big things and stunt the crop.
I pontificated on how the Bible uses weeds to symbolize sin and how, if left unchecked, we can have a harvest of weeds. Pretty heady stuff, I thought. I did all the research I could do on the subject. Quite a few doctor-type folks think about such things on a theological level, I discovered while searching the Internet.
I'm paraphrasing their great works of prose and I'm looking at my pocket watch. Only 15 minutes into the 45 minute lesson and I'm sweating.
Luckily, my wife interrupted me and asked me, “What happens when a farmer lets weeds get too big?”
That was the turning point in the lesson. Fresh off a field day that featured a weed identification clinic, I was armed with information that I had learned from the folks at North Carolina State University.
“Well,” I told them, “when weeds get over a certain height, they're very hard to control. You have to get them when they're little or else they'll get out of hand.”
The group had found something they could sink their teeth into. Something fascinating that was real. I started mentioning weed names like pigweed, tropical spiderwort and Florida beggarweed and they were in the palm of my hand. I had again been reminded of the truth that continues to come back to me: Talk about things you either know or affect you on a daily basis.
One teen-ager even asked, “Can weeds become resistant?” Oh, can they!
The remainder of the time went pretty well, in my opinion. I had to bring the lesson to a close, so I wrapped it up nicely with an all-purpose word, saying even though we may have weeds, we don't have to walk around like we're a “piece of crap.”
That's what the teen-age members of the audience had been waiting for, I'm certain. The audience started howling while the mouth of the youth director dropped to the floor. “You could have used a less-colorful word, Cecil,” my wife chided. “Yeah, I should have. I'm sorry. I'll try to use a better word next time.”
The next time I get to speak to that group — supposing that I'm not banned from doing so — you'll not hear anything about crap, mess or other colorful stuff we're supposed not to be doing. They'll hear me telling about my experiences, what I've learned and, all in a colorful way that may drop jaws now and then.
It reminds me of the time at the end of my college career when I was biding farewell to the folks at Village Chapel in Auburn. It's rumored that I said, “I love the crap out of you guys.”