Like it or not, we’ll all find ourselves in front of bunch of people, and talking to them. For many, this is about as close an approximation to hell on Earth as you’re ever likely to get. People find that their voices quiver, their mind going blank, and it takes everything they have to desperately get from “Good morning” to “Thank you”.
For me, that started at age 10 when I found myself standing on a milk crate behind a pulpit, reading from the Bible to a crowded church. It was big thick Bible written in old English with words this cowboy from Colorado had never seen (want to know how I pronounced “gentiles”? Well, it had more to do with the medical pronunciation of reproductive organs). To be sure, it was a totally un-nerving, lackluster performance, and I crawled out from behind the pulpit, my face red with embarrassment and totally relieved the ordeal was over.
“Not to worry,” Fr. Verde said after services. “You’ll do better next week.”
Excuse me? Next week! There was more of this ahead? I thought about it all, and thought, like hell I’m going through this again. But I had too much respect for the man to say otherwise. Dad was, of course, was his compassionate self when I expressed my fears to him, and then he said, “What happens when you get tossed from a horse?’ Well, every cowboy worth is salt knows that answer. You get up, get your hat, dust off your pants, pull the cactus thorns from your butt (every horse I’ve ever been thrown from always seemed to wait till there was a cactus patch handy before doing so), and you get back on.
So, I cowboyed up and began studying public speaking. To be sure, there wasn’t much to be found at the grade school level and so I began talking to my teachers on the subject, and more than a few were willing to help.
One of the first things I was asked was why did you have problems. Well, I was a last minute replacement (the lector had come down with the flu and his backup wasn’t in church) and on top of everything else, every one of my teachers knew I was a stutterer. So I got three pieces of advice right there that proved invaluable.
- Know your material. I already had the material prepared for me, but just reading it wasn’t enough. I had to read it before hand and practice it a bit. For the next week, one of my teachers would hand me something, and ask me to read it out loud to myself. I did this several times and then they’d toss me in front of the class, and I’d read it out loud. What I discovered was that just having been through the material several times, and reading it out loud, helped dramatically. And if there was a word I didn’t know or understand, than I learned to ask.
- Take your time, and pause occasionally (not for an extended period of time). The idea was not to take the text as one long race, but a number of smaller walks. This has the effect of taking a massive task and breaking it into smaller easy to handle chunks. I also learned that during these pauses, you glance up and make eye contact with your audience, and if you’re familiar enough with your material that you can do so during reading, even better. Years later I had this idea reinforced when I began smoking a pipe. In order to say something while smoking, you had to take the pipe out, and by that time you had your thoughts together and could come out with something that made sense and was coherent (I think that’s why pipe smokers are always portrayed as wise). Someone who did something similar was Neil Armstrong. You’d ask him something and about the time you thought he hadn’t heard you, he’d open his mouth and out would come this perfectly constructed statement or formula. So taking your time is vitally important.
- Ask for feedback. How did I do, where could I improve. My teachers and priest were more than willing to provide it, and I’d take their ideas and build them in. I also acquired a small cassette recorder, and I’d record myself, and play it back. I knew I’d be my own worst critic, and I wanted to hear how I sounded. I learned to put emotion in more, and I also learned to drop the octave of my voice a bit. It gave my voice more authority and also made it clearer and easier to listen to. Since we didn’t have speech pathologists back then, I learned this imitating the FM DJs.
I found was that with these three weapons at my disposal, one of the biggest items I experienced, good old fashioned fear, began to go away. Surprisingly, even my stuttering subsided. It still surfaces now and again, especially when I’m teaching. I tend to get very passionate and the brain gets ahead of the mouth. I’ve a sign hanging over my desk that always admonishes me to slow down. If I don’t pay it any mind, my wife will be happy to remind me. I found I actually began to enjoy public speaking and in after several months’ time you’d never have known that the kid standing behind the pulpit had been ready to pass out from fear just months before.
The next Phase in this had to wait till college. I began doing several things, all related to speaking. One, I began producing planetarium shows. These were mine, from start to finish and it introduced me to have passion in what you talk about and how to use humor. It also taught me how to tell a story, to take complex ideas (like the formation of stars and such) and make them easy to understand. Albert Einstein had written that “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it yourself”. I took the advice to heart and I learned to take an idea fraught with mathematical ideas and turn it into a story anyone could follow. It also taught me to use graphics and illustrations and to incorporate them into a means that would educate and entertain at the same time. This was all way back in the pre-PowerPoint days, and the thing I began to learn was that the graphics shouldn’t tell the story. That’s a function of the person doing the talking and you have to weave it all together to draw the audience into worlds they’d never seen.
I took speech courses, and learned not only the use of words and the voice, but props as well. Our prof assigned us topics and we had to research them. I drew “Violence as part of the Human Race”. I ended up borrowing two skulls from the Anthropology department, the owners of which had both died violent deaths ages ago. Using them I illustrated that violence was nothing new. An interesting aside was that during my talk, and while handling the skulls, some dried mud fell out of one them. A young lady sitting in the front row threw up. She thought it was dried brains. I thought it was a very effective presentation!
And that of course led to acting and to the Toastmasters club. Acting is a really good medium to get over stage fright and it’s all about the role. When you’re acting, for at least a little while, you become someone else. It’s probably the only occupation, with the possible exception of being a spy, where you can do that and not be locked up as a lunatic. You learn about motion, expression, and most of all “Focus”. I could have cared less about the audience at that point, I wanted the person I was playing to be real at that moment. In order to do that, I had to tune the audience out completely. I didn’t care about the laughs or the cough, or someone murmuring something. Every ounce of your being has to go into the part.
Toastmasters just improved me even more as a speaker. I was good when I joined, I was better when I finished. Some of the folks that were members were my professors from college. Others were community members like ministers, teachers, politicians, lawyers and just plain community folk. Most were more than happy to offer critique or praise, and what I began to learn from them was to take an idea and getting people to see it your way or in a new light. But something else was happening here, something was being laid that I didn’t fully appreciate until years later. I was building relationships that would pay benefits years later. These were people who I would encounter in my careers as a Police Officer, Sheriff, and an Emergency Manager. The fact these people knew me, and to some degree had a hand in making who and what I’d become made them easier to deal with as equals. The big thing I learned from Toastmasters was to use your voice as a leader, to convey dreams, ideas and needs, and most importantly, to build relationships with people.
So learning to speak is easy but it takes dedication and work and it’s a never ending process. It takes familiarity with your subject, even if it is a text written in old English. Never approach anything cold if possible. Slow down, and give yourself a chance to get your brain engaged. And the more you do it, the better you get. This breeds self-confidence.