Public Speaking: An unexpected phony

Disaster struck. I could blame it on adrenaline, or the wooden podium or the fact that I was giving a long and somewhat intimidating talk. Whatever it was, I was public speaking in front of a speech therapy college class, telling them the truth about stuttering from the proverbial horse’s mouth, and suddenly my stutter decided to take a mini staycation. I’m not sure when it left but I know it didn’t go far. I stuttered like a champion asking the man at reception where the class was being held and I had an impressively long block later that evening ordering a drink. But somewhere between standing in front of their expectant eyes and thanking them all for their time, my stutter decided to bugger off.

pubic speaking fears

Normally this would not irk me but it is hard to convey how deeply stuttering can affect people and how necessary it is to come to terms with a unique voice, when your speech sounds remarkably like everyone else. Half way through the speech I had thrown in some pretty drawn out voluntary stutters but that was just compounding the problem. The voluntary stuttering was putting me at ease and I was progressively less likely to really get stuck. It was a vicious cycle. I could see that they knew I was in control of the ‘fake’ stutters. Some yawns escaped from my audience.

Stuttering was my message and they couldn’t see it. I was a virtual stranger to them and, in their eyes, I was most likely a phony. I had no idea how to convince them otherwise.

It made me think…what makes a really compelling speech. Stuttering? Not exactly, but its not far off. The best answer I can come up with is vulnerability.

I am teaching a class on public speaking on May 3rd (check it out here) so I have been thinking a lot about the traits of a great speaker. There are many but I think that vulnerability is one of the most powerful and unexpected that I have stumbled upon.

Jeremy always tells me that the human brain is triggered to look for imperfections. I always used to think that he was being negative but he’s right. I have listened to lots of perfect speeches, delivered with style and pizzazz. But I don’t remember being drawn in, there were no intriguing imperfections.

Most of us have a persona that we adopt when we’re public speaking. It is a more polished version of ourselves, a slightly more eloquent version with a louder voice. I prefer the speeches where we see a glimpse of the real person beneath the ‘speaker’. So how can we show our humility without turning it into an AA meeting?

1) Self-deprecating humour. It is probably the Brit in me but I am immediately drawn into someone who can laugh at their own flaws.

2) Admitted nerves. If it’s good enough for Caroline Casey then it is good enough for me.

3) Telling them about any quirks that embarrass us. Do you pace the room when you talk? Do you speak faster than the road runner? Do you gesture like a character from the Sopranos?

Maybe, unlike me, you are a perfect speaker. If you are, then tell me how you got there? What was your journey?

Because, the thing is, perfection is boring. Humanity is far more compelling.

9 thoughts on “Public Speaking: An unexpected phony

  1. I made “improving on public speaking” my new year’s resolution and it’s been quite a rough ride! I am so completely impressed by your determination, grace and thoughtfulness in your own public speaking journey. My favorite book so far has been “The Confident Speaker,” which also encourages speakers to show their vulnerability and earnestness to make for a more engaging talk.

  2. Claudia, The Confident Speaker looks great…earnestness is not something I had thought about but I really like it. My amazon wish list gets larger by the day. Let me know how it goes with the public speaking. I imagine that you are actually pretty awesome.

  3. Loved this – it is our willingness to be vulnerable that makes us real to others. That is how we connect.
    I hate it when I get choked up when talking about certain stuff, but people always tell me that’s what they remember – my willingness to go there and be authentic.
    Like Roger Ebert!

  4. Willingness to go there…well said Pam. The vulnerable, honest stuff is totally what I remember. Ebert couldn’t be a better example

  5. @Hels – Caroline Casey is amazing. Hers is such a strange story but it sort of makes sense once she tells it.
    @Amelia – Thank you…that is a massive compliment!

  6. Hi Katherine,

    First off, I must say your blog is a welcome addition to the world of stuttering awareness. It is truly a highlight for me to read and relate to, and the power of having a blog all about stuttering can impact the world over because you never know who is reading it.

    I never wanted to do public speaking until I joined the NSA, and even then it was still a big challenge for me. For the longest time I grew up with a great deal of alienation and shame, and believing that my stuttering had made me a genetic mistake. I felt I should be seen and not heard. My first speaking experience was at Mercy College, and I kept telling myself not to blow this chance because I’d never know if I would get another one. There are many different approaches we use to speaking but we must recognize that what works for one does not work for someone else. I happen to be very congenial but if you met me seven years ago you would not even recognize the person I am today. Hannah Montana was right: “It ain’t about how fast you get there. It ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb.”

    Here’s to your climb, Katherine.

  7. Steven – Thank you and I hope that the experience at Mercy went well for you. I agree that public speaking, speaking in general, is so personal but there are definite ways to engage and connect for everyone.

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