With sweaty palms and a dry mouth, I took a deep breath.
In front of a room full of chubby-faced, clumsy 4th graders and their parents, I arrived at a big moment of my speech. It was the moment of the speech. Two seconds before the breath, I set up an actual joke, preparing to take a risk none of the other 15 adolescents before dared try.
Now, it was time for the punchline.
Even the cold, yellow concrete walls of the classroom seemed to leer at me as I paused.
Would the audience laugh? Would they roll their eyes? Would they leave?*
(*In retrospect, parents storming out of a 4H speech contest for 10-year-olds seems unlikely. But at the time it seemed a very real possibility.)
Here’s what stand up comedians don’t talk about much: you can’t tell a joke halfway. When you deliver, you must be completely confident the next words you say are going to send the audience into a fit of rolling laughter. A joke (or anything, probably) delivered with half a heart will be met with pity at best and indifference at worst. This is true regardless of the content’s quality.
I took a deep breath, and screamed:
“EVEN GOD IS NOT AWAKE AT THIS HOUR!”
A couple of the parents laughed. Most of the children simply stared in shock, their eyes now bulging out of their sockets. In the back, one brown-haired boy gaped with his mouth wide open like a fish.
I still remember that.
The rest of the speech passed without event (meaning I didn’t have to scream in the voice of my mother about the comparison between my sleeping patterns and those of a deity). At the end, I nodded toward the polite applause and walked back to my seat.
Later, a girl walked up to me.
She said: “You’re funny.”
And then walked away.
I don’t think she said more than 4 words to me after that day.
For a moment, though, I had mattered. Really mattered. She remembered a part of what I said.
I wonder if she still remembers.
I wonder if anyone will remember anything I say.
— — —
First, let’s ask the obvious question:
Why bother learning how to speak well in public?
For me it was simple — I knew there were ideas I could only get across if I were in the room. At camp as a director, I had to motivate 12 teenagers to … you know … try. When I was an editor at a college paper, there were times when written words would fall short. On most of these occasions, I was more than a little nervous.
One time I had to tell an editor he would be suspended if he kept showing up late and staying later. That was the worst one.
At first, I didn’t know why I felt in my gut certain things needed to be spoken aloud. Then, I found out about most of our communication takes place through verbal cues and body language.
And now, Introvert, since I have distracted you and delayed for about 500 words, it’s time to tell you the truth:
The only way to get better at public speaking is to speak more.
— — —
“Doesn’t writing my speech make me a better speaker?”
Not really. It can help you prepare, but it won’t help you deliver. When the surge of adrenaline clouds your brain with messages that say either “RUN” or “PUNCH THEM IN THE FACE,” you have to know where to put those feelings.
“But can’t I just use notes?”
Sure, but you’ll miss out on a wide spectrum of emotional transfer if you’re looking down the whole time. Be a person. Not a book.
“What if I speak in public so rarely, I don’t have time to get used to it?”
Rehearse 10 days before. Rehearse 9 days before. Rehearse 8 days before. rehearse 7 days…
“Does that mean look at my speech and say it in my head?”
No. That means say it out loud. Without notes. See where your instincts and your mouth take you. You might be surprised.
“Who should I rehearse with?”
I have found my steering wheel to be an incredible and indulgent audience.
“Do I have to tell jokes?”
“Is there a hack to this?”
Yes! Talk about what you know intimately and care for passionately. Al Gore (the introvert) is a mediocre politician, but an incredible advocate for climate change.
— — —
Before you leave, it’s important to remind you of something:
You don’t have to, but you can. Your ideas are important. They will change the world. If they get rejected a few times, I don’t want it to be because of any doubt in your public speaking abilities.
Stay focused. Stay balanced. Rehearse, and then:
Much love as always ❤
— Todd B
P.S. If you’re curious about my process for getting new ideas for speaking (or new ideas for anything, really), you’ll like my Microjournaling practice.
This article first appeared on Medium.