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Learning to Speak Up

  • Posted on July 24, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Public speaking is something I’ve dreaded my entire adult life. It’s not so much the speaking part, but the public part. Standing up in front of people and being the center of attention is not something I crave, not at all. Expecting something coherent to come out of my mouth while that’s happening—let alone something informative, persuasive, or entertaining—just exacerbates my anxiety.

Public speaking is also something I’m going to have to do in order to do what I want. Furthermore, I will need to be informative, persuasive, and engaging, if not entertaining, for the effort to be worthwhile. That means I will need to be coherent, too.

It’s an “I am Here” and “I need to be There” kind of situation. Not only does There seem far away, it is an uphill climb.

I’ve tried the straight-line approach. I’ve accepted small, seemingly comfortable opportunities to speak. Usually I come away feeling that I have no idea what I said, and yet getting encouraging feedback, especially from those who knew beforehand that I was scared out of my wits. Overall, despite the positive feedback, I consider those efforts a failure, because I come out of them feeling like, “I’ll never be able to do this.”

Yes, there’s “Try and try again,” but there’s also Einstein’s “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

So, I’m trying a stair-step approach. I’m creating small moments for myself that allows me to experience success, and building myself a staircase to what I want to be able to accomplish. As per my last approach, I’ve had success reaching out to and conversing with strangers by engaging them on topics of interest to them and then shifting the conversation to a related interest. This creates a bridge that allows me to express something that just might open their minds.

One example of the kind of success I’m having happened when I was sitting with a salesperson. It was a long wait and part of his job was to make the wait less tedious with talk. One thing we found we had in common was kids, particularly teenagers. This created a natural bridge to discuss the peculiarities of my own children—nothing embarrassing, just to shift the conversation. Then, to launch the conversation in a different direction, I added in some commonly unknown facts that encapsulates our society’s attitudes towards people with disabilities. He was already engaged, but these facts caught him off guard. He didn’t know them, he was surprised by them, and he was—hooked.

I then had the opportunity to speak extemporaneously about my passion. He listened.

Moments like that allow me to imagine the day when I can do that with five people, or ten, or a hundred, or more. It also spreads my message a little bit at a time in the Here that I am.