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The Day I Dared to Make a Difference

Have you ever had a moment so fun and so meaningful, you could hardly put it into words? It happened for me last week after taking a small leap—actually a series of small leaps—just outside my comfort zone. I share this story in hopes that it inspires something fun and meaningful for you.

It starts with a simple "Let's do this." (apologies to Home Depot)

Last fall, a high school administrator named Sue and I started brainstorming ways I might take part in their "100 Days Till Graduation" celebration for seniors. Union Catholic High School is in New Jersey and I'm in California—so our first thought was to have me speak to the senior class via Skype.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much more of an impact I could have in person. How do you hug or shake hands through Skype? How do you laugh and make eye contact, let alone sign books?

So I floated the idea of flying out for the event. A few of us set up a conference call and determined this would be fun. We all saw the possibilities. My assigned speech topic: finishing strong. I like it.

Rule #1 in public speaking: Fulfill the expectations of the people who invited you.

I never lost sight of the school being in New Jersey, but I did sort of forget I'd be flying out there in February. Jersey is cold in February. Maybe this time it wouldn't be. Just to be safe, I went on Amazon and bought a bright blue pair of earmuffs. (Spoiler alert: Jersey was fine. If anything, the crisp, cool air felt wonderful. No earmuffs needed.)

Meanwhile, I poured everything I could into my speech: all my best stories, all my best words of encouragement. But it was too much. The school asked me to give one speech, not three.

This is one of the best, most overlooked reasons to practice: to whittle away what doesn't belong. I dropped whole sections and restructured the speech around three compelling stories. Simpler is better.

With each run-through, my message became clearer—and I grew more confident. Never mind that I'm far more familiar with college students than with students in high school. I knew how to connect with my teenage nieces. More than once while preparing the speech, I texted them for a quick opinion.

Ultimate Reminder #311: Expect a few hassles when you fly.

I'll spare you the drama of four flight delays, one cancellation, half a chili dog, and a wild cab ride home—what matters is I made it to Newark a day later than planned but still in time to have a late dinner with two school officials, the night before my speech.

To get up the next morning and out the door on time, I'm not even going to tell you how many alarms I set. But I made it, with good spirits and good energy.

As 197 seniors filed in to the auditorium, I took a few breaths—and I prayed that something I shared that morning would be what someone in that room most needed to hear. Friends and family had been praying the same thing.

As I took the stage and held the mic, everything in my heart—including those three stories I had prepared—just poured out. I spoke without notes, which is harder to do but so much more engaging. One brief, impassioned excerpt:

"I tell you this story not to scare you or scold you, but simply to remind you: If anything happened to you—you would be missed terribly. Every. Single. Day. Forever. I'm asking you to take care of yourself: physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. You could never be replaced."

"What comes from the heart reaches the heart."

Sure enough, after the speech a group of students came up and introduced themselves. Some shared struggles, some simply asked me to sign their book—the first being Olympian Sydney McLaughlin: a gracious young lady known as much for her humility as her athleticism.

Finally, one young man (Is he a student or a staff member?) came up and initiated the following exchange:

Young man (offering a smile and confident handshake): Hi. I'm Pawl.
Me (shaking his hand): Pawl! You're not from the Midwest.
Paul: Nah, I'm from Jersey. Here's my business card.

Paul and I are now connected on LinkedIn. I've thought about having him look over my resume. Kidding. Still, I can picture this high school senior one day settling my estate.

Getting to that auditorium/stage wasn't easy. It took hard work, which I'm used to, powering through a bad cough, which I'm not used to, and reliving probably the toughest moment of my life as I prepared one of those three stories.

So why go through it? Because I believed my words could make a difference—and I felt called to take that opportunity, even if I never found out what difference I had made.

Yet thanks to the students I met, the kind praise of those who brought me in, and the handwritten note from my main contact Sue, I did find out. And the joy of those moments left me filled with silent gratitude.

What are the stories only you can tell?

We all have them. Some are laugh-out-loud funny; some, you can hardly get through without Kleenex. Capture your stories—and when the spirit moves you, share them with a worthy audience. Dare to make a difference.

Take care of yourself. You could never be replaced.

Gina DeLapa

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Gina DeLapa is America's Ultimate Reminders® Coach, a sought-after speaker, and the proud creator of the Ultimate Reminders® book series. Her wise and witty reminders ("Beware the organization whose response to a burning building is to form a committee") will make you laugh, stir your soul, and inspire your best. If you're not already getting her free Monday-Morning Pep Talk, be sure to sign up now at UltimateReminders.com/mondaymorningpeptalk.