Life Lessons Learned Along the Way: The Art of Becoming a “Stuperstar”
We continue our series of personal, impactful stories that have shaped how we practice law.
There’s nothing like an audience. Being on stage in some form – most people would regard that prospect as terrifying. Not me. I love an audience.
That’s not always been the case for me. In middle school, I shrank to the back of the room every time this or that teacher called for an oral presentation. Then, one day, I could avoid it no longer: I was called on. I made my way to the front of the class. I tried to walk slowly, but I couldn’t. I had too much nervous energy to walk slowly. I stepped behind the podium that the teacher had set up and set my notes on it. I was grateful for that podium, how at the same time it held my notes, it hid the bulk of my body behind it, making it less likely that my classmates would see any nervous tics my legs and feet might display as I spoke.
I finally forced myself to look up at my classmates. Although most of them looked back at me, some did not. It occurred to me in that moment that those who would or could not look at me were those who hadn’t yet given their presentations, and those who looked up at me were the classmates who’d done so. The ones who looked away demonstrated the same nervous energy that I’d felt when I was waiting to be called on: they rapped pencils against their desks; they shuffled or tapped their feet; they squirmed; they looked everywhere in the room except toward the front, where waited (they expected) their doom. The ones who looked toward the front of the room were relieved, were happy, and most importantly, were alive. They hadn’t perished from the experience of talking in front of the class. They had survived.
As I beheld from behind the podium the disparate body posture and faces of my classmates, I was suddenly and immediately calm. I could do this. I could make it through my prepared speech on one of my favorite topics ever: the Detroit Tigers. After all, I’d already done the real work – I’d prepared. I’d researched what I needed to research, had the names and stats and lore of my favorite baseball players all down on the notes in front of me. I had anecdotes about my own baseball playing, how I was inspired by my favorite player, Tigers great Lance Parrish, to be a catcher. I was prepared to say how watching Lance Parrish made me unafraid to don catcher’s pads and helmet – commonly known in baseball parlance as “the tools of ignorance” – despite speedily approaching pitched baseballs and the nearness of hastily swung and then released bats. I’d been hit a few times by those baseballs, and even by those bats as fellow Little Leaguers threw them before running toward first. But, as I was prepared to state in my speech, because of Lance Parrish’s example, I was unafraid.
Thinking ahead to that part of my speech, I thought how I’d seen my classmates (or at least heard them, given my propensity to look away as they spoke) give their own presentations, and seen how they’d not only survived but even thrived after public speaking. Like the example of Lance Parrish, looking out over those classmates as I began my speech about my beloved Detroit Tigers, the faces and body postures of those that had already presented gave me the courage to begin.
I vaguely remember the content of that speech. All I remember is what I’ve already written here: my speech was about the Detroit Tigers and in it I described Lance Parrish as my inspiration to be a Little League catcher. The one other thing I remember from that speech is the one flub I made, the last word of the speech. I don’t remember the sentence leading up to that word, but the last word of that speech that I uttered was this: “Stuperstar.” I’d of course meant to say “Superstar.” But it came out “Stuperstar.” That word made my classmates (even the ones with all of the nervous energy of those who hadn’t yet presented) laugh. They’d liked the speech, it was clear. I was good, up until that last word. And that last word, flub as it was, had made it even better for them. And in that experience, I learned that even an occasional flub wouldn’t ruin a public speaking experience.
I have that word, “Stuperstar,” in my head every time I speak in public now. In May, 2022, when I argued for the first time in my career before the Michigan Supreme Court, I thought that word, “Stuperstar,” as I set my notes on the Supreme Court’s podium. I chuckled to myself before beginning to speak. As I made my way through my argument, explaining why my staffing agency client could not be held liable under Michigan’s Whistleblower Protection Act or otherwise under Michigan public policy, I was calm. I was relaxed. I answered the Justices’ questions and made my way back to my prepared arguments with ease. I felt good.
When, two months later, the Supreme Court agreed with the majority of my arguments and then remanded the matter to the Michigan Court of Appeals for further consideration of my remaining arguments, I felt even better. And then, in February, 2023, when the Court of Appeals found in my favor on all of the arguments I’d made, I felt even better than that. As I read through the Court of Appeals’ lengthy “For Publication” decision, in which the Court held that my client had no liability whatsoever, I truly felt like a “Stuperstar.”
In our second article this month, Jesse Roth discusses two pending Michigan Supreme Court cases that could soon deprive landowners and insurers of the powerful “open and obvious” defense against premises liability claims.