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Stay Calm: Three Books To Squelch Stage Fright


We've all been there — you're at a family event, a business conference, even a PTA meeting, when the person in charge catches your eye while people are still milling about.

"Hey, can I call on you to say a few words?"

If you're like me, your hands are sweating just reading that sentence. But if you're also one of the millions of Americans who now own an iPad, Kindle or other e-reader, you need to load these three books on it to have with you at all times. If you need real help real fast, load these and you won't be left tongue-tied at the podium.


Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln: 21 Powerful Secrets Of History's Greatest Speakers

By James C. Humes, paperback, 224 pages, Three Rivers Press, list price: $14.95

A speechwriter to five presidents and a Churchill expert, Humes is known for books full of clever stories that have a point. In this one, he gives tips from greats ranging from Napoleon to Thatcher — examples showing how to use props like reading glasses and letters from the mail, statistics and even acknowledgments to great effect.

More than a how-to book, Speak Like Churchill Stand Like Lincoln includes a wealth of stories and powerful lines easily transferred to any occasion.


Bartlett's Book Of Anecdotes

By Clifton Fadiman and Andre Bernard, hardcover, 800 pages, Little, Brown and Company, list price: $50

Having the classic Bartlett's Familiar Quotations is good (also available as an e-book), but having Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes is even better. Along with safe bets Yogi Berra, Mark Twain and Will Rogers, you'll also find anecdotes about folks from all walks of life — Eastern, Western, ancient, modern, young and old, from Socrates to Zsa Zsa Gabor — indexed by name as well as by topic. If you're talking to car dealers, look under "Henry Ford" and you'll find a great selection; if you're speaking at a literacy fundraiser, you can find about a dozen stories on "ignorance." Sometimes that's all you need to get rolling.


The Seashell Anthology Of Great Poetry

By Christopher Burns, hardcover, 349 pages, Random House, list price: $25

So often, the great moments of life — weddings, anniversaries, retirements — cause more speech-giving stress than business events. Plenty of inspiration can be found in the Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry because unlike many other poetry books, it's not only indexed by author and title, it's arranged creatively by theme. "This is the singing of our tribe, called out across the noisy business of daily life," writes Burns as he introduces the best of 500 years worth of American and English poets, as well as translations from Sanskrit, Russian and Japanese. Need rehearsal dinner remarks? Try I Dwell in Possibility by Emily Dickinson. Eulogy for a friend? Flip to the chapter entitled "Death Be Not Proud." Need a shot of courage on the way to the podium? Chant the Indian song: "I shall prosper, I shall yet remain alive." I promise you'll survive.

Beware of joke books for speakers: they're usually not indexed and worse, not funny. Witty, historically accurate stories are far better than telling a joke in a speech: less risky in terms of getting a chuckle, plus they make you look well-read and charming. Same with poetry. When your own words come slowly, these three books will get you there — so that, like William Ernest Henley in the poem Invictus, you too can say, "in the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud." Instead, you can say, "I just gave a great speech on short notice."

Mary Kate Cary is a former White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, and currently writes a column on politics for U.S. News & World Report.

Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Kate Cary