Poised. Confident. Engaging. Relatable. Characteristics public speakers dream of embodying.
The art of conveying meaningful information to an often distracted audience is a feat worthy of consideration. Mastery of public speaking skills, equally necessary in both the business sector and a PTA meeting, is something that comes easily to some and painfully to others. In the course of my life, I have consistently fallen into the second category.
It hasn’t been from a lack of trying. Through an onslaught of genuine tears, I convinced my 3rdgrade teacher that I deserved the title role of Christopher Columbus in our class play. (It consisted of snippets from his life. 4 out of the 5 Christophers were girls). I still remember my lines, “Please Prince John, I beg you to listen. I have studied the ancient maps … I know I can find a route to the Indies by sailing west.” Though the part pleased me, I didn’t get the one with the solo. The girl who received that honor now travels with a Broadway musical.
I again faced the microphone, delivering a sincere address, to my democratically minded seventh-grade peers, convincing them they should elect me as their class historian, a role I held for three years. A role I loved. I relished taking pictures, clipping newspaper articles, and recording the events of my class. Yet, as junior year elections approached, I realized I had to resign.
You see, somewhere between the ages of 8 and 15, I had lost the confidence it takes to stand in front of people and tell them something. The class historian is responsible for giving a long history of the class at graduation in front of 5,000 people, a task that frankly terrified me.
I googled thoughts on public speaking for this post and came across this quote from Jerry Seinfeld. "According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy." At this stage in my life, I might have agreed.
It continued to go downhill from there. In college it hit rock bottom when I received a C+ in public speaking. We had to videotape ourselves in hopes of improving, and all I remember was a lot of “ums” and a furiously rotating ankle.
Fast forward a few years and I am in the throes of support-raising for a mission to Ireland. Suddenly, I find myself in front of groups of people, trying to explain to them the love of Christ and the need to share His gospel abroad.
Ya’ll, religion is a tricky subject to broach with an audience! There are so many touchy points and taboos making proper articulation absolutely essential, lest you find yourself splattered with rotten tomatoes. And yet, the message of the gospel, in my opinion, is so irresistible and so important, that not speaking is simply not an option.
It's as Jeremiah 20:9 says, "But if I say, "I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in. Indeed, I cannot."
Thus, since pursing a life of ministry (as a career), the opportunities and necessities of public speaking have progressively increased. In fact, one of my dreams is that someday I'll have sweet wisdom to share and people to share it with in a speaking capacity. Thus, it is necessary to recognize that though presentation is not the most important thing ... it is certainly important.
I truly believe people can improve their public speaking abilities. Here are a few helpful tips:
1. Care about your subject matter. It has been said, “Grasp the subject, and the words will follow.” It is easy and natural to talk on things we love. Think about that slightly irritating friend who now has grandchildren for the first time. Does anyone really care about every single mumble jumble sound that comes out of the baby’s mouth? No. And yet, this proud papa has no trouble delivering his content with ease. In the same way, speaking about things you care about will enliven your innate emotions, joy, sorrow, frustration, excitement.
2. Know what it is you want to say. Mark and I both are still at the stage where we work way better with a manuscript. This means sitting down and physically writing out every word you intend to say. Even if you don’t end up using the manuscript, having all the ideas out there in a concrete form, ensures that you stay focused.
3. Practice. Work on it yourself, and then find an audience of one, who you feel comfortable working out all the blunders with. Repeat as many times as necessary.
4. Welcome criticism. As with so many things, growth requires pruning. The only way to get better is to seriously consider truthful feedback. Ask for it beforehand, and you are much more likely to experience success.
5. Work on troubling sections. Growing up I had a speech impediment. “Pleasth pasth the pascetti.” (Please pass the spaghetti). I still stumble over multiple R’s in a row. Many of us have these troubled spots that oftentimes cannot be avoided. Recognize your problems and put extra effort into successfully articulating them.
6. Go slow. Forcing yourself to slow down your words, forces your audience to focus on what you are saying. If they don’t hear your words, they cannot consider whether they matter.
7. Keep at it. It is impossible to improve overnight. Yet, I do believe that possessing public speaking skills separates the men from the boys, as they say. Thus, if you happen to ask the Lord to “breast the meal” at your best friend’s wedding, do not let that keep you from offering the blessing two weeks later at another’s. You get right back up on that mike and mispronounce her niece’s name. (All true stories).
This past weekend, a third friend trusted me, and I had the honor of reading Scripture in her wedding. Amazingly, the most difficult part of the whole task was the walk up to the podium twice (and thankfully, wedges totally eased that difficulty). I think I did ok, no crazy foot movements and no awkward mentions of body parts.
Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People said, "There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave." I encourage you all ... learn from your mistakes (and the mistakes of others) and press on!
Lesson Learned: There is hope for me. If there is hope for me, there is hope for us all.