In my current life, it’s hard to remember that there was a time when I stuttered and needed speech therapy for years. Those who have known me for years, have seen a person unafraid to address a gathering. Hopefully it is not apparent that once there was a time that I could not say more than hello to a group of two people, without getting a case of the dry heaves. the utter fear consuming me. Even today I have the same symptoms, the heart thumping in my chest, the shaky legs, the cottonmouth.
How I solved my issue, was driven by my love of politics. I forced myself into every speech and theatre class imaginable, driven by the hope I would be able to overcome my issues. Today all those years later, I still have the same internal question. Why the hell is anyone going to want to hear what I have to say?
I never figured out that answer to my satisfaction, but my years of intercollegiate speech and debate led into years of advising politicians and others on communications. One lesson is that there are few people born with the communicative genius of Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. An example is the person who delivered what many think was the greatest extemporaneous speech of modern political times, on the occasion of Martin Luther King’s death. Robert Kennedy.
The backdrop is hard to imagine today. A presidential candidate travelling into an inner city almost alone, into a place where the Indianapolis police refused to go, delivering a speech about an event that about to ignite riots in Washington and across the country. But not in Indianapolis. For that night he spoke of the event that had almost destroyed his own spirit, the passing of his own brother. Though RFK was never a platform speaker of the caliber of his brothers, the obvious depth of his passion that night, his willingness to reach into the depths of his own most painful experience, stopped a tide of violence that flooded cities everywhere. A miracle. And a lesson that the power of belief and of commitment to a service can make each of us a great communicator when it is most needed.
We may not have the occasion to be that person in the eye of a historic moment, but there are lessons we can all take with us in our own journeys, and our next chance to touch a group of others.
1) Being a servant to those who hear you speak. This is your chance to say something, to help those sitting around you. How can these people be helped?
2) Speak to people not crowds. Make eye contact with as many as you can. Remember Ronald Reagan on TV. He made direct contact with each viewer by looking head on into the camera.
3) There is a difference between presenting and being present to each in the room. Make every single person feel they are the person being spoken to.
4) Make it the work of a higher author. It’s a possible chance to make God’s work truly our own. We never can tell when what we impart may be transformative, or why a person is in the audience.
5) Do not care what “they” may think. If we internally feel potential negative judgment, it generates fear and “sources” our nervousness.
6) Focus your message on what the audience needs to hear, and share what one needs to know if they are moved to take action.
7) Be open to a midcourse correction. Focus on where you wish to take the discussion, not how you get there. Think of success as a co-creation with your listeners.
8) It’s always a practice session for another time. The objective is continued improvement not perfection. There’s a reason why Broadway shows open elsewhere. It’s about experience
9) Speak from your heart, the depth of your experience, your emotion. The mind tells you what you believe others may wish to hear. It may not be what they need to hear.
10) Enjoy the moment, and with experience you may find speaking to others can even be FUN. A deer in the headlights, probably is not enjoying the experience.
It’s good to be prepared, but it’s tough to focus on connecting with others while speaking from a script. If a speaker relies too heavily on rehearsal and memory, a blown line can cause you to stumble and think how to get back to the script. It disconnects us from the message we are imparting. It makes our persona seem insecure and screams our message is simply canned.
It’s easier to focus on an intention and a goal, rather than a list of bullet points. Leave whatever went on before the moment you started speaking behind, and don't worry about the last presentation or anything else. It’s a moment to give 100% to those that are in the audience. Avoid taking yourself too seriously. Work to find some joy . Try to have fun. Think like Marv Levy who coached the Bills to four straight Super Bowls, “There’s no place I’d rather be.”
We each have a message. Your voice and experience and journey can inspire, transform a life, or make a difference for others. Do not be afraid of being bold, if that is what your moment takes.
We never may know the lives we may help to change if we begin by choosing to be a servant. We may learn how much we may change for the good as we progress. It’s a reason why there is heartache when we think of Bobby Kennedy,
PS – A LINK TO THE KENNEDY SPEECH FOLLOWS