I recently attended parent orientation for my son's high school Speech and Debate Club. This is how the club's sponsor teacher began her presentation:

"If you can hear me, clap once."

The high school lecture hall quieted as we all clapped once in unison.

"If you can hear me, clap twice."

Two loud claps filled the room.

"And now bring your hands together in applause."

The parents and students clapped continuously until the teacher raised her hand to silence the room.

"And, that, parents and students, is what we live for here in Speech and Debate Club. Applause is the instant gratification and feedback that says we did our job and connected with our audience."

While her words resonated with most of the audience, it didn't at all reflect my own feelings or reactions to speaking or performing in front of others.

I was propelled back to my own high school years of national piano competitions and the one experience which forever changed the way I viewed performing for others.

Like so many times before, I walked out onto the stage in a large, empty performance hall where the only other people in the room were the three judges who sat side by side in the front row. In the many years I'd participated in piano competitions, I'd always earned unanimous superiors - something that was pretty much expected to maintain my coveted slot with one of the top music studios in the state.

I went through the familiar ritual of adjusting the seat to the right level and then raised my hands until they hovered over the keys.

And then I froze, unable to recall any of the memorized piece that I was to play.

"I can't remember where my hands go," I said.

After a long, awkward silence, one of the judges let out a loud sigh before naming the notes of my initial hand placement.

I fought back tears, carefully placing my fingers on the named keys.

And drew a complete blank.

Finally, I said, "I can't remember anything."

None of the judges spoke as the Chief Judge stood up and proceeded to climb the stairs to the top of the stage. I can still hear her footsteps echoing in that silent hall as she made her way across the stage to me.

She placed the sheet music on the piano in front of me for what felt like the briefest of moments before returning to her seat.

It was only then that she spoke. "You may begin when you're ready."

The glimpse of notes on the page somehow unlocked my memory, and I managed to play the piece flawlessly - all the while knowing that this year I would not be going home with any kind of respectable rating no matter how well I played.

As the last note echoed through the empty hall, I walked to the edge of the stage to stand before the judges who were furiously writing notes on their score cards.

They did not clap, as was the standard practice. They didn't even look up. As my confidence crumbled into my shoes, I trudged the length of that painfully silent stage to await my fate.

No one was more shocked than I was when the ratings were announced. I had received two superiors and one excellent. It wasn't Unanimous Superior, but, for me, it was my biggest of victories.

Included on my final score card was a personal note from the judges that forever changed my views on performing in front of others.

The note read: It is easy to have pride in our skills and courage to be judged by others when everything is going right. But it is a far greater act of courage to perform flawlessly when everything fails despite all of our preparation. Your high ratings are not out of sympathy but because of your courage and flawless performance under such difficult circumstances.

It's been years since I've even played a piano, but the lesson I learned that day is still helping me when I am in front of an audience. I now understand that the key to public speaking is not the applause at the end.

Applause is a polite ritual; think about it - we clap even when we think a performance was quite horrid.

So I don't live for applause.

I live for impact - for that moment when someone else makes a braver decision, revisits some long-held opinion, or embraces a new concept because of something spoken on stage.

The key to truly effective public speaking is not in how loud or long the applause is after we finish; it is in how authentic, passionate, and courageous we are so that our words evoke a lasting impact on others.

Published on: Aug 26, 2016