I’ve been told I’m lucky I can speak in public.
It’s not luck. Anyone can learn to speak in public. Here’s how.
When I was young — under the age of 10 — I wanted to do two things more than anything else. I wanted to tap-dance and play the violin.
My dreams were crushed. My parents opted for singing lessons (solo and choir) and elocution lessons. I realize now they were the cheapest lessons around and money was short. Or was that really it? Did my parents know something I didn’t?
My first humiliation came when I sang with my choir at a concert. I think it was in the Westminster Church Hall in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. I stood in the front row. I remember a brown dress with full crinoline (it was the 1950s) and my favorite yellow and brown cardigan. (it had come as a hand-me-down from my cousin, Kathy.)
All was well until we stopped singing and the crowd clapped loudly. And so did I! Laughter rippled around the room. They thought it was cute. I thought I’d prefer to sink through the floor. That ended my choir career, at least as far as I remember.
A year later, I performed solo at one of the ubiquitous Kiwanis Music Festivals. (My music teacher was going to earn her fees, no matter what.) Folks, I was painfully shy but that wasn’t the problem.
Reality — I couldn’t carry a tune in a tin bucket. However, I warbled through a song about Susie and seashells. The judges comment? ‘A sweet little voice.” Come on, I had heard enough of the judging to know that was a place holder. One of those comments designed so as to not hurt the child. Mortified, I hustled from the stage.
Later, as a teen, I sang in the church choir. Of course, I did, I was the minister’s daughter. I felt sorry for the choirmasters stuck with my off-key renditions. When one director said if we didn’t know the notes we could mouth the words, I was relieved. (I knew he was talking to me.) However, standing in the choir, I suppose I got used to facing a room full of faces.
Along the way there were parent nights for the elocution presentations. I fared markedly better in those. It seems I had a good memory. (And I was not required to carry a tune.) My mother (who couldn’t carry a tune either) played into this one. My grandfather had taught her and her six siblings to recite poetry by the bucket full, and she’d done the same with me. Elocution recitals I was ready for.
By the time I was twelve my dad, a clergyman, had me reading scripture in both Sunday School and occasionally in the pulpit. Either that or the teachers thought I was the logical candidate as the minister’s daughter. I had plenty of opportunity to practice in front of people.
High school came with stage appearances in plays. My choice-and though keyed-up, by this time I wasn’t fearful enough to stay away. In English class, reading the role of Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion became my favorite activity. I look back now and realize I loved it. I loved playacting.
My appearances continued through nursing school, teacher’s college, and teaching. If they needed an MC. I was it. If they need scripture read. They handed me the text. On Family Sunday at the church, I gave the layperson’s sermon. More practice.
From there, I moved on to adult education, workshops, and speeches as outside-of-work activities. I gave lunch-box talks at businesses. I took and taught workshops for educators and worked for the Dale Carnegie organization. I spoke to a dozen people and to 3,000+ people. Learning and practice.
Am I lucky to be able to speak in public? I’d say it was opportunity seized and practice, practice, practice coupled with learning necessary skills. That’s why I can face down a crowd and have a roaring good time. Somewhere along the line, I turned into a first-class ham. It’s really no different than how swimmers turn into Olympic competitors. Or writers turn into multi-published authors.
One major advancement came when I learned the audience wasn’t judging me. They were just darn glad it was me at the front of the room and not them. I also learned to laugh at myself, my tongue-tied moments, my misspoken words, and the forgetfulness that struck me from time to time. And they laughed with me, not at me.
On the other hand, maybe it was luck — luck that my parents chose those activities for me, luck my mother taught me to recite poetry. Either way, it’s not what presents itself, it’s what we do with the opportunities. Given a different path, I might be able to tap dance and play the violin. I find I prefer to speak in public.
Some opportunities teach us what we are not to do (like sing), that’s okay too. I built on the other opportunities and you can too.
Does it take courage and practice? Yes. But, be not afraid. You’ve got this.
Whatever it is. Whenever you start. – Speaking, writing, swimming…and more.