The Dreadful Public Speaking

I was never a confident public speaker. I used to be a TA at the university where I did a lot of teaching, mostly to groups of 20 student, occasionally to an auditorium of 250. I would rehearse those hours meticulously, often to the point of learning the whole thing by heart. It was exhausting, but I did get better at it, more natural, and my students never complained. That was seven years ago.

Now here I am, an activist who needs to speak out publicly. And it turns out that public speaking is not like riding a bicycle. You don’t do it for seven years, you lose the knack.

For the first couple of Transition events I made sure I had strong invited speakers. All I had to do was the introductions. Even though I gladly followed the good advice to keep those short, I was still very nervous. I arrived at the events half an hour early, if not earlier, and over-rehearsed my three lines.

Soon the introductions became more elaborate, then  people started to notice me and wanted to hear from me – a Waylander – and not from an invited speaker who doesn’t live here. After all, that’s what Transition is about.

My speeches became longer. I love writing them, hunting for the words that perfectly describe the ever morphing idea of what Transition is. One day I hope I can distill it all into three sentences again. But for now, they’re half a page, 1 page, 2 pages…

My audience went from 2 (seriously) to 25 to 100. They are great audiences, they listen so intently. And they seem to like my accent and my voice.

But when I’m “up there,” I’m still fighting the flight-or-fight reflex, telling myself:

It’s the words that count, not the one speaking , and all she has to do is speak clearly so she can at least be understood. I am a channel.  I am merely a channel. These words speak for themselves. You’re doing the Work. It needs to be done. You’ll get better at it. People understand.

Public speaking, it turns out, is like flying. The more I do it, the more I fear it.

Why is that?

Yesterday my Transition colleague Wen (a fabulous public speaker) and I did our “Transition Talk” at the big Interfaith Thanksgiving celebration. You can hear an earlier version of that here, when we did it for the Episcopal Church on Saint Francis day.

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  1. It is the committed speaker and the flowing poetic words and the heartfelt message that you bring to your speech, even if there is fear (that no one noticed).

    You and Wen both did a great job last night!

  2. Hi.

    I feel your pain (even though I’m a presentation skills trainer!). The reason you get more fearful if you do more of it is that you know the stakes more. If things go wrong, it’s more serious. Everyone forgives an absolute newbie presenter – no one forgives the seasoned professional presenter. If you think of yourself as someone who ‘should’ be able to do it now, you’re putting pressure on yourself.

    Forgive yourself! Your mantra of being the channel is spot on!


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