Sunday, 5 April 2015

Dear Reader,

How do you feel about public speaking? I would imagine most responses would range from slight trepidation to full-blown terror, and it has been documented as one of the most problematic issues for introverts, well explained by Susan Cain in her book 'Quiet' ( she explains here that "introverts are disproportionately likely to fear the spotlight").

I discussed this with a friend recently whose experience of (the anticipation of) speaking at his wedding blighted his entire day. My own experience of wedding speeches was almost the reverse: having prepared for weeks, written and researched my words carefully, the best man failed to introduce me and my speech was never heard. My preference for not embarrassing anyone by publicly contradicting them on this occasion somehow overtook my desire to have my voice heard on my own wedding day.

You may be wondering already why I didn't see this as a blessing in disguise: I'll own up. I'm one of those rare introverts that has grown to (almost) love public speaking, no doubt due to my rigorous school training and years of practice as a teenager. At the time, nothing could have been more terrifying for me. I was shy, awkward, and felt trapped and flighty before every speech. Even worse were the debating competitions where we had limited time to prepare for the motions being debated, and the audience and opposition were quick to spot and scoff at errors. But something kept me coming back - I loved the complexity of the ideas, the difficulty of analysing thorny issues for their pros and cons, and most of all the ability to separate my own views from a logical argument from either standpoint. I learnt the basic ideas of how to speak successfully - eye contact, pregnant pauses, speaking slowly - and realised that those elements were easily achieved once I was able to control my pounding physical symptoms.

I remembered all this recently when I decided to take to the podium at a national teaching conference. There was time given over after every motion was presented for impromptu speeches that contributed to the debate, and I was interested to see if I still had those skills, as well as feeling passionately about the material. Susan Cain also suggests that introverts find it much easier to speak about subjects that are sincerely important to them, and I wondered if I would find this to be anecdotally true. But, being a careful introvert, I wrote and edited my speech the night before so that I'd have something concrete to use as a basis.
The moment came. The simple act of getting up out of my chair and sitting in an allocated speakers chair some six feet across an aisle seemed unbearably daunting. I was also panicking because I had uncharacteristically failed to leave enough time to print my speech (I had spent more time in the bathroom beforehand than expected) and had my laptop with me instead. I was unsure of whether it would be worth it or not. Would anyone care what I had to say? Would I choke and fluff my speech and be forced to sit down ignominiously? I had nearly talked myself out of it when I saw that the young man next to me had got up to sit in the speakers row. He smiled at me with complete fear in his eyes and swallowed determinedly. That made the decision for me. If he could do it, so could I. 

I only had time to give about half of my speech. Those three minutes were a blur. I remember banging my laptop against my microphone and apologising. I remember my voice sounding too quiet. I remember smiling at an audience that seemed uninterested and puzzled, as if I had no right to be there. But then I remember walking around for the rest of the day being congratulated by people who enjoyed and empathised with my words, were eager to share their own similar stories, and one wonderful individual who commented 'if you can teach half as well as you can give speeches, you're a fantastic teacher'. I'm incredibly glad I gave that speech, but I may need a few days in bed to recover.

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