Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lessons from a Shotgun Rider

Toward the end of basic training, the drill sergeant gave us all a form to fill out giving our first three preferences for our permanent location after technical school. I remember putting down Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. I felt encouraged that the military would actually take our desires into consideration in making assignments. However, after tech school, the great day came for receiving our orders and mine simply said APO 109. Of course, I had no idea what that meant, so I asked the sergeant. “You are going to love Germany, Ford,” he said.

The first thing I had to do upon reaching Hahn Air Base, Germany, was to attend driving school. We had to learn about all the European road signs and we had to try out in all the vehicles we were likely to be driving in our work: VW pickup trucks, half-ton Opals, weapons carriers and other vehicles, mainly large trucks. I passed the course and, sure enough, my unit had me driving great big old vehicles full of equipment from Hahn Air Base up to Bitburg Air Base fairly regularly. They sent a more mature soldier with me to ride shotgun and help me unload. His utterances—mainly advice on how to drive the big vehicle on the crazy German roads—are etched in my memory and I can hear his voice clearly: “Ford, just drive this thing like you know what you are doing. Act confident and you will be confident.”

Well, I took his advice and, sure enough, the driving seemed easier and much of the stress went away. And, my companion’s words had a spin-off use as well. I applied them to other aspects of my life. If I had to make a dreaded oral presentation, for example, I would try my best to look and act confident and that ploy most often resulted in actual confidence.

Without really being conscious of it, I think I must have applied that driving advice I received so many years ago to my teaching as well, especially at the beginning of the semester. I try to walk in with confidence, say a few words, write the assignment for next meeting on the board and then outline the plan for that session. The process gives me confidence as a teacher and it also gives the students confidence that they are in good hands. No, this is not an All State commercial.
Inexperienced speakers often start their remarks with an apology, “I’m not much of a speaker,” or “I’m nervous, so bear with me,” or “I’m having some issues with my voice,” or some other remark about their feelings of inadequacy or stage fright.

Instead, the best approach for the speaker is to stride to the podium looking confident and acting like it is a true pleasure to be there. If you look confident, you will be confident and the audience will appreciate it. Audiences are pained by initial apologies and thankful for that speaker who can launch into the speech with apparent ease. My shotgun passenger in Germany taught me a lot.

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