Speaking to a Socially Distanced Crowd

Yesterday, I spoke to the wonderful women of the Fort Caspar Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I think it went well!

My presentation title “Fifty-One Years of Freedom: Wyoming’s Suffrage Story, 1869-1920” reflects how I can’t help but write an academic title. “Creative Title: Descriptional Title, Date” is just a formula that works.

It was my first presentation since COVID hit and the restrictions have been slightly lifted. I walked into a room set-up for social distancing, they had used a tape measurer to ensure chairs were 6 feet apart from each other. Really, this has been my one of first active interactions with the public, besides going to the store. Everyone kept slightly more air between us as we chatted together before the meeting. My application for DAR is pending along with my Aunt Linda’s and it was nice to meet the women in my local chapter. I hope to make many new friends.

Now, usually as a public speaker, I have a very good read on my crowds. There is a certain sort of energy that comes from a group of people fixing their attention on you. Teachers know this, you feel it when you don’t have someone’s attention. I think one of my most profound moments as a substitute teacher was when I had the opportunity to teach a 9th grade class about the Holocaust. The bell rang as I was finishing my last thoughts and the room was still. None of the kids moved. They all waited for me to finish my thought and excuse them. That had literally never happened to me before in a classroom. There was one kid who started to grab his bag, like normal, but quickly stopped because the energy in that room was powerful.

It is part of the reason why I have turned to public speaking– when your audience self-selects, you are much more likely to experience that type of energy. What I guess I didn’t realize and, should have, was how much that energy wasn’t just created by an interaction of me with the crowd, but also the crowd with each other.

Usually, a reaction ripples through a crowd but yesterday reactions popped up in isolated islands, dappled throughout the room. When I had a few isolated nods in different places in the room, I knew under normal circumstances that the people in between those reactions would have also been pulled into a nod. Six feet apparently stops the spread of more than the virus.

I am very fortunate that the women of Fort Caspar DAR are so gracious and many of them have thanked me and praised my talk because while there were several isolated good reactions while I was speaking, the crowd energy was difficult for me to read overall. Instead of feeling that thrill of a really well-done speech, I mostly felt a slight confusion afterward. My speech felt long and I know that my energy was off the charts with excitement to be with people and share my research. The kind words and reviews have helped to ground me to the realization that my confusion came from those 6 feet. They have been extremely encouraging and I am happy to be joining their community.

Like most of my speeches, I know that this one will get better with time. The more I give it, the more refined it gets and I understand the moments that create magic in the crowd. If these conditions are our “new normal,” I will adapt and learn how to read a socially distanced crowd. Then maybe I will learn how to pull the crowd not just to me, but also each other so we can all feel that magic.

Next week, I am giving an online class for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which is my presentation on the Wyoming State Flag. I am already considering how I should greet my students–I was thinking of thanking them for “logging on.” I hope it will go well and we will see about that digital crowd energy.

The only photo I took that day for my talk, well that and a dozen other selfies like anyone else trying to take a picture of themselves. I was using my very dainty Wyoming handkerchief as a face covering that day. Someone did snap a photo of us standing by our socially distanced chairs at the meeting, but it really isn’t the time to be handing someone your phone and saying, “Oh, take one for me too, please!”




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