Special to the Morning Star
Some authorities say that public speaking is the main fear that most people have. It is apparently more common than fear of spiders, heights, flying and similar everyday problems or potential problems. Why is this? There are many reasons, varying for every one of us, that I can only guess at. So let me tell you why public speaking is not a problem for me, not now anyway.
It was not always that way, and I still have a slight apprehension that I may forget what I am supposed to say. But I have no hesitation in getting up (or sitting down), and saying what words of wisdom I have to offer to my listeners. I say “words of wisdom” for if you don’t believe in what you say, how can you expect others to believe it? And I am always governed by the old maxim “Blessed is he who having nothing to say does not say it.” I have also found that those who ignore that last dictum usually take several times the necessary amount of words to say nothing.
What changed my attitude to speaking in public was this. I was about 12 years old and was participating in a poetry festival. I had been taking elocution lessons in what proved to be a rather ineffective attempt, suggested by my father, to correct my local northeastern England dialect habits. Actually I can speak something like the approved standard (or Queen’s) English when required whilst still preserving the ability to speak the Geordie patois fluently, so the lessons were not wasted.
I was to read the poem The Old Grey Squirrel by Alfred Noyes and naturally I knew it by heart, or so I thought! When my turn came to speak I walked to the centre of the stage in a very crowded hall, bowed to the audience, confidently announced the poem’s title and delivered the first line: “A great while ago there was a schoolboy who lived in a cottage by the sea.”
Then there was a stricken silence, my mind had gone blank! I just couldn’t remember the second line. In hope that a repetition of the first line would prompt my memory for the second line I started again: “A great while ago there was a schoolboy who lived in a cottage by the sea.” Again a deafening silence, it had not worked.
I realized that unless I was going to subject the audience to even more repetitions of the first line, I had better get off the stage as swiftly as possible. So I bowed respectfully to my audience and said that I was sorry but that I had forgotten my poem lines. I thanked them for their attention and walked off the stage dreading the worst. To my surprise the audience actually clapped their hands in sympathy and that made me feel much better.
That was the moment when I realized that such apparent disasters like forgetting your lines could be dealt with as long as you stay calm, and polite whilst making a reasonable apology. It was also the moment when any fears of facing any audience or of public speaking left me. It never returned. And whatever they thought of my “performance” nobody threw anything at me or yelled abuse at me.
Now I still make careful preparations if I ever have to make a public speech, indeed after one such experience I learned how necessary that is. But I am no longer apprehensive about giving it. From there one learns to deal with various unexpected situations such as hecklers, plan changes, and unexpected questions or comments. Don’t be afraid of any of them.
Here are a few other tips that I have found useful: (1) Most of your audience realize that they could not do as well as you in this situation. They are relieved that they don’t have to (2) Realize that the more unusual the subject is, the less your audience is likely to know about it or to contradict you (3) If you speak authoritatively, clearly, and confidently, your audience will think that you know what you are talking about – even if you don’t (4) If you are asked about something that you know absolutely nothing about then say so and change to some vaguely related matter that you are conversant with and talk about that instead, (I got this tip from a British radio show called “One minute please” where participants had to talk for one minute about some obscure subject that they had no previous warning of.) There are many other tips that you can acquire as you continue your public speaking experience, but don’t rely completely on them as someone could call your bluff!
And what was that elusive second line? It was: “And the very first thing he could remember was the rigging of the schooners by the quay.” I looked it up on the internet again to be sure I got the second line right this time.