Learning to Speak
When you get to a certain age - it takes some of us longer than others - you have learned some basic rules of life. If these rules are not broken, your life will be less stressful. Among these rules are:
1. Never wash a colored sock with your whites.
2. Never miss an oil change or inspection.
3. Never allow your child to eat a Popsicle indoors.
4. Always take a map even if you have GPS.
5. Never pluck a nose hair while you are wearing mascara.
6. Always carry cue cards in case you are ever asked to “say a few words.”
That last scenario can strike “stress” (read terror) into the most fearless warrior.
For me, public speaking was as awkward as trying to put tights on a wired toddler. I’m a writer; a purveyor of the written word. Just because I can write with some degree of proficiency does not mean that my mouth works in tandem with my brain. Just because my brain and my mouth are located within an inch and a half of each other doesn’t mean there is any connection between the two.
Some eloquent speakers have somehow managed to make that connection. It’s invisible, but it’s definitely there. My brain and my mouth are like nosy neighbors. They are always wondering what the other is up to, but they don’t like each other enough to ask.
So what’s a girl supposed to do when she’s asked to “say a few words”?
She says as few words as possible.
Once, I thought a simple thank you to the audience would be enough. I stood up on legs that had turned to cream of mushroom soup and spoke into the microphone.
“I thank you all from the heart of my bottom.”
And then I had to apologize.
I finally admitted I had a problem and promptly joined Toastmasters. Toastmasters, does not, as one might think, manufacture toasters. It is a group of people who practice speaking in front of that same group of people. When I first heard about it, I thought, “You’re kidding, right? People actually do that? On purpose?”
It makes sense though, that if you make a mistake or have a brain spasm, the damage is contained to the small group of people that have the same affliction. All Toastmasters have the same goal: To be able to speak coherently in front of an audience without having heart failure.
When a new person joins and gives his or her very first speech, we all know what they are feeling. We’ve all been there. The symptoms are pretty much the same the world over.
1. Shortness of breath because you forgot to breathe.
2. Hands so clammy that they slide effortlessly in and out of the introductory hand shake.
3. Butterflies that amass in great quantities in your gut and threaten to spill out your mouth with the rest of your dinner.
4. Knees that knock like a Model T Ford.
5. A voice that shakes as if you were orating in a wooden roller coaster.
Toastmasters prepares you for your first speech by giving you tips about what to say, how to say it and to wear cotton underwear to absorb the sweat.
After the first speech, it gets easier. The cotton underwear is still a must, but I now feel like I can stand and speak for an audience without an urgent need for a nearby restroom. Somehow, simply knowing what the goal is and having the plan to get there gives me the confidence I need to speak to audiences.
Learning to speak well is a basic skill everyone should master. This cannot be overstated, because another basic rule for life is that when someone asks you to “say a few words,” refusing is not an option.