Stage fright never was a problem for Connie Carey whenever she had 88 keys at her fingertips.
She loved performing. She relished the applause of the audience at concerts and recitals.
“At the piano, I never had to say anything,’’ she said.
But standing up and speaking in front of a crowd? The thought terrified her.
In 1991, she was asked to make an announcement in a Sunday school class.
It wasn’t Palm Sunday. It was sweaty palm Sunday.
“My knees began to knock and my voice began to shake,’’ she said. “I lost my train of thought and couldn’t remember some of the details. The people on the front row had to help me out. When I sat down, I thought to myself: ‘That was ridiculous.’ I realized my attention was more on myself and my nerves than it was on my message. And that should never be.’’
She joined Toastmasters International, an educational organization that promotes communication, leadership and public speaking skills. There are more than 292,000 Toastmasters belonging to 14,350 clubs in 122 countries.
Within three years, she was entering speech contests and, more importantly, having fun. Her confidence soared.
“I learned to communicate my thoughts in a way that made a difference,’’ she said.
The nerves did not completely disappear. She never wanted them to go into full retreat. Edge is good.
“I was able to get those butterflies flying in formation,’’ she said.
Next week, Connie will participate in the Toastmasters International competition in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She will be one of 91 speakers vying for the world championship. This year marks the first time the convention has been held outside of North America.
Last year, she advanced through the local, area, district and state competition to qualify for the Toastmasters International speaking contest in Cincinnati, where she finished in the top 18. There were more than 30,000 contestants worldwide at the start of the competition in January 2013, so she ended up among the elite.
Connie, who lives in Macon with her husband, attorney John Carey, is a member of the Middle Georgia Toastmasters. Her group, which was founded in 1982, meets on Wednesdays at 7:30 a.m. at Middle Georgia State College. (Another local chapter, the Macon Toastmasters, meets on Mondays at 6 p.m. at the Medical Center of Central Georgia. Founded in 1957, it is one of the oldest Toastmasters clubs in the world.)
August is shaping up as an exciting month in Connie’s life. Last week marked the release of her new book, “Falling Up: Lessons Learned on the Way Down.’’ There is a photograph of her skydiving on the cover.
It is a spiritual guide with practical steps to deal with grief and loss. She shares insight from her personal journey after her father, William R. Mercer, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in September 2005. (The book is available at www.amazon.com and at Creter’s Gifts in Ingleside Village in Macon and The Olive Branch in Dublin.)
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. After the death of actor Robin Williams on Monday, Connie wrote a blog for her website at www.conniecarey.com. She called it “Robin Williams, My Dad and the Voice of Truth.’’
She credits her father for “planting the seed” of the spoken word in her heart. William Mercer taught the Dale Carnegie Class in public speaking throughout Georgia from 1965 until 1993. He often would take Connie with him to his classes and speaking engagements. When she was in the fifth grade, he gave her a copy of Carnegie’s famous book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.’’
For several years, Connie had to drop out of Toastmasters because of other commitments. She was busy with her career as a musician and worship leader in Macon. She taught music at First Presbyterian Day School and was music director at two of Macon’s largest churches -- Ingleside Baptist and Mabel White Memorial Baptist. Last year, she released a CD of classic hymns and contemporary worship songs on the piano.
She and John also are involved with a ministry through Strong Tower Fellowship, which works in the inner-city neighborhood of Pleasant Hill. Connie started a children’s choir, teaches a Bible study and now offers a modified version of the Toastmasters program for adults in Pleasant Hill.
“I started it because nobody would look you in the eye when they talked to you,’’ she said. “Some were terrified to share their feelings. One of the most satisfying things is to see how they have grown. Now they look you in the eye and give you a firm handshake. I will be excited to be on a larger stage next week. But when I think about victory, I think about Pleasant Hill.’’
She has prepared a seven-minute speech she will deliver -- without notes -- at the start of the semifinals on Aug. 21. The speech was inspired by a young piano student she taught when she was living in Dallas, Texas, more than 20 years ago. His name was Luke. He suffered from a rare, neuro-developmental disorder known as Williams syndrome.
Connie did not want to take on a special needs student. At the time, she was going through a divorce in her first marriage and was at a bad place in her life.
“I was not up for the challenge,’’ she said. “But teaching him piano was life-changing because of what he exposed in me. I was jealous and resentful of my friends with happy marriages. If anybody should have felt sorry for himself, it was that little boy. And he was always happy for you. He delighted in the success of others.’’
If she reaches the finals, her second speech is called “A Teacher Affects Eternity.’’ She used it last year to reach the top 18. It was inspired by Nancy Claxton, her piano teacher when she attended Dublin High and went on to be crowned Miss Dublin in 1978.
“I don’t want people to walk away saying I was good or funny,’’ she said. “I want them saying they need to go thank a teacher.’’
That is an essential element in a successful speech.
“An I-centered story,’’ she said, “with a you-centered message.’’
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.