what to do when you’re faced with a room full of strangers

Public speaking is considered the number one fear for many people, prompting responses such as a choking feeling, dry mouth, clammy hands, butterflies, and profuse sweating.

Not me. A crowd of 200 people? No sweat.

Interestingly, I didn’t discover this about myself until I was in my fifties. I’ll never forget the first time I spoke in front of a group and that feeling of utter amazement as I realized, “Oh; that’s who I am!” Ever since that day, I’ve been able to make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em question why –it just seems natural to me.

What isn’t natural to me is the part that the professionals say is the most important: Interacting with the crowd before you speak.

That’s the part that makes me nervous.

Standing up in front of a crowd of strangers, entertaining, and inspiring them is one thing; walking up to them individually and striking up a conversation is a whole other level of communication. I mean, come on; they’re strangers.

Oh, I do it –I just don’t do it very well. If you study the etymology of the word “hospitality you’ll see it originally meant something along the lines of, “loving strangers.”

Hellooo! I’m the stranger. Couldn’t somebody take me around and introduce me to some people, make me feel welcome?

 

Pay. Attention. To. Me.

 

In a perfect world, this might actually happen. In my world, it rarely does. It is up to me to wipe my sweaty palms on my wrinkled linen skirt, pop a breath mint, walk up to the table of seated women, put on a smile and attempt to break the ice.

Here’s how it frequently goes:

Me, squinting to read their name tag: “Hello, Doris! Don’t you look spiffy in your springtime yellow dress!”

I look around and realize everyone is wearing yellow; apparently there was a theme I didn’t know about and I’m wearing my usual, “looking like I’m dressed for Halloween,” depressing black attire.

Doris: Looks up, says, “Hello.” Looks down again.

Me: Desperately trying to think of something else to say: “I’m your speaker!”

Doris: “Oh, that’s nice.” Looks back down at her program.

Me: “I live in Raleigh.” (Really, Sue?)

Doris, perking up now: “My next-door neighbor’s son-in-law’s sister’s best friend lives there! Do you know her?”

Me: “Um. I don’t think so.”

 

SILENCE.

 

Someone rescue me, please. I can’t do small talk. After 15-20 minutes of making the rounds from table to table, I cannot tell you the relief it brings me when the microphone crackles and I hear the chairperson call the meeting to order.

Oh, blessed Jesus, just give me the microphone, please, and I promise I’ll give you my first-born son or anything else you want. Just don’t make me have to actually have a conversation.

Ok, so I maybe overplayed that a bit, but really, not all that much. Pretty pathetic, huh?

Sigh. I know, especially when the experts say that the difference between an amateur speaker and a professional is that the amateur looks out at the crowd and says, “Here I am!” and the professional looks at them and says, “There you are!

I want to be the latter but confess that more often than not, I’m so relieved to get past the meet and greet part that I come off just the opposite.

So it was with great interest and a real desire to learn from a “pro” that I shared the platform with my friend Becky Burgue last week. I knew from our weekly talks and individual post-speaking engagement rundowns that she was much better at all this than me. In my defense, she taught public school for 38 years and learned long ago how to “work a room.” Except for her, it’s apparently not work. She’d hate it that I called it that.

For this particular speaking engagement, I was the “feature,” meaning I was basically warming up the crowd with an inspirational topic before she spoke. Then she would come up and share her testimony. Seemed like a plan. We were prepared and prayed up, so when we walked in we both went into action, walking around the room, greeting the ladies and hopefully turning strangers into friends before the “real” part of the meeting began.

That, I quickly realized, was where I had it all wrong. For Becky, the informal introductions were the real part of the meeting. The best part.

I knew from our conversations that Becky often experienced that same invisible wall with certain ladies –the wall that sent me heading off desperately in search of a cup of coffee, a restroom, or a quick glance at my text messages; anything to avoid another close encounter. Becky apparently just considered those occasional awkward exchanges like a dropped call and moved on to the next woman.

A smile on her face, enthusiasm in her voice, she made her way through the room, interacting with the women, laughing and jotting notes on her note pad. “What in the world is she writing?” I wondered. I finally gave up, sat down and just watched her do her thing.

Not only did she speak to every woman in the room (I was exhausted just watching her) she quickly became on a first name basis with the servers and took it upon her self to learn their history and career aspirations. Here’s a picture of Becky and I with Beau, an energetic young man working three jobs. Pretty sure he’ll end up owning the place after the pep talk Becky gave him!

 

 

When she began to speak, it all became clear: she included those women, (and those servers) their names and bits of their stories, in her introduction. Again, in my defense, I had done this in the past; if I met someone with a really unusual story and characteristic, I’d weave it into my intro. But this was different. When Becky did it, the women were the intro.

And because of this, she had them in the palm of her hand. She saw them, she heard them, she entered into their world and in return, they gave her a little piece of their heart. They trusted her. And they responded to her presentation.

That day, I, the Shared Table “Hospitality Guru,” got schooled by a schoolteacher in the art of hospitality, as well as in the art of public speaking. See, I preached the gospel of “loving strangers” but in this situation, my own insecurity made me focus on the “stranger” part. Becky focused on the “loving.”

 

And that made all the difference.

 

Here are some more lessons I learned from observing my friend:

  • Have a servant mindset
  • Greet guests as they come through the door
  • Mingle
  • Be curious – ask questions
  • Listen to the answers
  • Be interested and genuine
  • Be an encourager

As the main speaker, Becky could have easily put herself on a pedestal, but instead, she helped out by holding the door, passing out nametags, assisting the event organizers and servers whenever and wherever she saw a need.

She built rapport and connected with the guests by showing genuine interest. By the time she stepped to the platform she was no longer a stranger; she was part of the group. Because of her proactive approach, she didn’t have to do any awkward promotional gyrations or sign-up sheets at the end of her talk. I watched women pull out their phones and Facebook friend her while they stood in line waiting to give her a hug.

But the best part of all? Those early introductions paid off in an eternal way. She reached out to those women, showed them acceptance, showed them Jesus and so they responded to Jesus when she made the invitation. Lives were changed that day.

I know mine was.

 

THE LAST COURSE:

When you’re in a room full of strangers, how do you practice hospitality?

 

..at the end of all of our hospitable activity we are faced with two questions, “Did we see Christ in them? Did they see Christ in us?” Esther de Waal


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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