Speaking and Being

A friend wanted to buy me a short course as a gift and so I chose a two-day public speaking workshop. I’ve been teaching at art colleges for twenty years and my colleagues and students probably think I am quite an experienced and confident public speaker. But I know my inconsistencies, and also know that a lot more is possible for me as a public speaker.

In addition, I have increasingly become aware of the crucial importance of all kinds of public speaking, to our well-being, our sense of self, self-esteem, self worth etc.

On the course there were a wonderful variety of people, all coming for different reasons, and all ultimately teaching each other, as well as learning from our excellent teacher. Among many, varied and rounded  exercises, we focused on the tiniest details of sound production with different parts of the mouth, throat, lips, teeth, palate and head.

One fellow student spoke about gaining confidence in doing something as simple as asking others to make room on a crowded bus or tube. Another spoke about being able to politely and firmly break-off a conversation that might have developed with a stranger encountered on a journey.

All these examples, along with the more obvious aim of successfully giving a speech, a paper, or a lecture, drew us in to consideration of just how formative public speaking is to almost every aspect of our lives. We can use it to free ourselves, to assert ourselves, to develop ourselves, to make our feelings and ideas understood, and to respect ourselves – or we can just ignore it and simply accept the public speaker we are now, with all the complacency, limitation and resignation that implies.

At the end of the workshop everyone gave wonderfully varied two-minute presentations, which showed just how much we had all learned in just two days about all aspects of public speaking. To prepare, I wrote about double the amount of script needed, waxing lyrical about some of the above, then edited my text ruthlessly back, always considering how it would feel in the mouth, and how it would project to the audience.

To illustrate this post, I will simply paste the final version of my little speech (about speech) below, in grey. If you are interested in this theme, and based in or near London, there are excellent and reasonably priced short courses in public speaking at: The Mary Ward Center, Morley College, and City Lit. Or look at the prospectus of your local adult education college.

Say Your Piece, Stand Your Ground!
I love to hear politicians and other experts on the radio, as well as so-called ‘ordinary people’ who phone-in to have their say. I don’t like to be distracted by lurid TV pictures, but prefer to concentrate on people trying to express, defend and promote themselves by means of effective speech.

However, I have come to realise that a truly excellent speaker is a rare thing. Even the radio’s crème-de-la-crème; hosts and guests alike, constantly fall short. This may be why one long-running, popular radio programme features professional speakers simply trying to complete a single minute of spontaneous speech without error.

When I do hear perfection, I am awed. Last week a spokesperson for the protest movement in Hong Kong was interviewed, and the formal qualities of her speech gave her political position unequivocal conviction. What she said didn’t immediately end the conflict, but in her words, it seemed to me, you could hear the right side of history speaking. (Incidentally, the Hong Kong government seems to now be backing down).

This, I think, is what fascinates me about public speaking. We have a duty, to ourselves and to the wider world, to say clearly and convincingly what it is that we have to say; to take our words as seriously as anyone else’s, and thus to take ourselves fully seriously. Once we are able to say our piece, we might be able to stand our ground, and in this way convince others of the value of our perspective, our experience, our belief.

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