THUMP, thump. THUMP, thump. My heart was pounding, and I was breathing rapidly. The palms of my hands were sweaty. I paced the floor as I waited to go up on stage. My mind raced. “What if I forget my speech? Will I be able to hear myself on the microphone? Is my speech any good? Does anyone even want to hear what I have to say? Maybe I could go home right now.”
I was participating in a Toastmasters speech contest. The winner from the event would go on to the final contest at the Toastmasters International Convention, and despite being competitive, I wasn’t there to ‘win’ but to grow in my ability to speak before an audience. The contest was an opportunity to practice and to grow as a speaker.
In spite of being anxious, I went up on stage and delivered my speech. Once all speakers were finished, the names of the top three places were announced. Mine wasn’t one of them. I smiled, though, knowing I had grown tremendously, having stepped out of my comfort zone and onto the stage in front of an audience.
I didn’t just show up that day and deliver a speech. I’d spent time practicing, learning and growing as a speaker. Having already given a number of speeches in Toastmasters, I effectively had to learn to walk before I could run.
Toastmasters has taught me a lot about speaking: It’s important to use good vocal variety, varying pace, volume and tone. Pause when appropriate. Eliminate ah’s, uhm’s and other nervous filler words. Body language needs to add to the speech and not detract. Move from behind the lectern. Make eye contact with the audience. Incorporate humor and don’t talk through the laughs. Be personal – using personal anecdotes helps you connect with your audience. Quote sources. Audiences remember the beginning and the end of your speech – make them good. The list seems to go on and on.
I get nervous enough in anticipation of speaking. Trying to remember all that goes into speaking well can feel overwhelming.
It helps me to keep three key thoughts in mind when it comes to speaking:
First, most speakers are nervous to some degree or another. Even Johnny Carson, the Tonight Show host of 30 years, was described as being quiet and shy, preferring small groups of people he knew to being in front of a crowd. His stage presence was the result of preparation not a desire to be in front of people.
I’m not alone in being nervous about going in front of an audience. I remind myself that like many speakers I most likely appear calmer on the outside than I feel on the inside. My challenge isn’t to learn how not to be nervous, but to act in spite of being nervous.
Secondly, the audience wants to hear what a speaker has to say. Just like readers need writers to write, audiences need speakers to speak. Quite often part of me wants to stay in my seat rather than get up in front of the audience. However, many times after I’ve spoken, someone from the audience approaches me to say thank you, or share that they appreciated what I had to say. To not get up and speak can withhold from someone something they wanted or needed to hear.
In “The Christmas Cottage”, a movie based on the life of painter Thomas Kinkade, his mentor says to him, “It isn’t enough to know how to paint. You must know why you paint.” It seems to me the same is true for speaking. Knowing why I’m speaking helps remind me that there are others who want to hear what I have to say, particularly since this is my calling.
Lastly, practice, practice, practice. “Talent alone won’t make you a success. Neither will being in the right place at the right time unless you are ready. The most important question is: “Are you ready?”” – Johnny Carson
Without practice, few accomplishments are made. Practice. Practice. Practice. If there’s an opportunity to speak in front of others, I’m probably going to take it. I practice as often as I can, and everyday communication is a great opportunity to practice my speaking skills: when leaving messages, talking with clients, talking with my kids, etc. I like to say, “Every opportunity to speak is an opportunity to speak well.”
In the book Chicken Soup for the Writers Soul, Elizabeth Engstrom, author of “It doesn’t matter what you write”, concludes her passage with this: “Never forget: it doesn’t matter what you write. What you believe will show through.” Those words have been an inspiration for my writing. I extend them to speaking also. I remind myself that if God’s given me a message it doesn’t matter what I say. What I believe will show through. More than speaking eloquently, it’s the message that’s important. This doesn’t preclude me from learning to do the best I can. I have a responsibility to practice and improve.
Through inaction due to fear or uncertainty, I know that I’ve withheld gifts God wanted to give to others through me. I can no longer sit idly by. As my heart pounds, my hands sweat, and my mind ponders the doubt because I’m too concerned about what others might think, I ask God for peace. I slowly walk to the front resting in the comfort that this is His will and not mine.
One Toastmaster said that if it doesn’t give her butterflies, it’s not worth doing. I’m sure it’s wise to consider this in moderation, but it seems to me God is the one giving us butterflies. He calls on us to rely on Him to do His work. Sometimes this is outside of our comfort zone.
You’ll see me at the microphone – practicing. I hope to see you there too.
THUMP, thump. THUMP, thump.
See you out front.
This blog originally appeared as an article in the February – March issue of the Northwest Christian Author. Jeff Heiss has been a member of NCWA since May, 2009. He just started blogging at justjeffblogs.wordpress.com