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Poster board, PowerPoints and puppets

By Jennifer M. Latzke

"My name is Jenni and I'm going to talk to you today about my crochet project."

It was 28 years ago, at a monthly meeting of the Jolly Jayhawkers 4-H club of Woodbine, Kan., and with those words I began my path as a public speaker. It wasn't exactly "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," but for a 7-year-old it wasn't half bad.

It's 4-H Club Days time in Kansas right now, and I've been reminiscing as I've listened to the 4-H moms in our office. And it's gotten me to thinking about all those speeches, all those demonstrations, and all those long nights of making posters and practicing that eventually made me comfortable to get up in front of a group and speak my mind today.

I can look back on those times with fondness now. I think it's fondness--I might still be repressing the agony of procrastination, minimal preparation and fear, though.

These kids don't know how good they have it today. Back in my day, researching a topic included a trip to the library--which was usually closed when you needed it the most--or reliance on the musty Encyclopedia Britannica set that was missing the letters C, F, U, and W that your parents had purchased 20 years before.

Try looking up factoids to sprinkle into your talk about the evolution of British breeds of cattle at 10 p.m. the night before your Saturday 8 a.m. speech without Google or Wikipedia, kids. Then, we'll talk.

Not only that, but these whippersnappers can use technology that wasn't available when I was their age. Today's 4-H public speakers can use PowerPoint to assist in their talks and demonstrations. They can add video clips, music, flashing lights and all other manner of entertainment to dazzle a judge.

Back in my day, glitter paint using military surplus stencils on neon poster board was the height of sophistication. Of course, this also necessitated a well-stocked supply of poster board, letter stencils and markers, which was rare around the Latzke household. And, if you had horrible handwriting or a mother who had horrible handwriting, you could kiss a blue ribbon goodbye.

And then, there was always the one kid who threw caution to the wind and used some gimmicky support material in the hopes that her judge would be so dazzled he would overlook her lack of preparation. These included but were not limited to: livestock, small pets, lit sparklers, hand puppets, costumes and sound equipment.

By the way, I still say the borrowed and modified stuffed lamb with Velcro-attached tail and scrotum was a genius addition to my senior demonstration of the proper banding technique for tail docking and castration in lambs. And the judge agreed.

If I could tell today's young speakers one thing that doesn't change, it's that public speaking experience really is valuable. Sure, it's scary to get up in front of a judge or a small group to talk about something with your mother in the back of the room mouthing the words to your speech and making more hand signals than a third base coach.

But it really does get easier the more you do it.

And, when you're an old fogey like myself, you'll see the value in all this work today. When it's time to give a sales presentation, you'll be the one on your team who can stand up and represent the group. Or, if you need to share your idea for a fundraiser with your kid's PTA or address the school board, you won't be afraid to just stand up and speak.

But, let's leave the hand puppets at home, OK?

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or jlatzke@hpj.com.

Date: 2/4/2013

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