By: Justice Shorter
Public speaking is a pathway through which your passion can be passed on to the world. It is a gift that you needn’t be a wizened orator to provide. It is both performance and practice. To speak is to build worlds comprised of fierce truths and futuristic freedom tales. To speak is to claim space as narrators of the now and to reclaim our place as indelible holders of histories. We speak to survive. We speak to amplify our joy and join those whom have been deemed disposable. Whether said aloud, signed, shouted, written, or whispered, we each possess the power to send a message. And with each message, we collectively march out of the margins.
There is no shortage of how-to guides and articles related to public speaking. For this very reason, the points noted throughout this essay are not intended to be prescriptive. In other words, there are no promises of perfection or philosophical jewels latent throughout this piece. There are however, reflections, reminders, and numerous attempts to encourage you to think, and dare we say, speak for yourself. Some of us learn how to speak for ourselves only after speaking up/advocating for those we share interpersonal connections with, while others are initiated into speaking as a means of self-preservation/personal survival. Although our interests and origin stories may differ, we all have something to say and multiple platforms and opportunities to say it. Your way of speaking publicly may be online/virtual or in person in front of crowds that vary in size. It might be on the streets at a protest to amplify the message that Black Disabled Lives Matter, debating in a classroom, advocating in a courtroom, fighting for your life in a hospital room in front of your medical team, challenging government policies at a townhall meeting, a social media campaign in support of other marginalized youth with disabilities etc. All these platforms and avenues are valid, valuable, and deserving of your voice.
The fear of failure is the biggest opposition to folks speaking publicly. To be clear, only you can define what is considered a personal, public speaking failure. In doing so, ask yourself the question, why do I assess these actions, outcomes, or comments as failures? So much of what we perceive as failure has been shaped by standards of perfection structured in the style and superficialities of wealthy, white, heterosexual, cisgender men. Most failures are ableist and racist norms that we have been conditioned to believe are “correct” ways of showing up, shifting through, and sculpting our presence on this planet. Now that we have acknowledged that fucked up societal baseline, we can challenge ourselves to question how we as individuals and as a community constitute, call in and cancel around failure. While you’re in a contemplative state of mind, also examine how the word has been weaponized to marginalize most of the world’s population. Once you’ve reflected on your relationship to and understanding of failure, keep a few of the points noted below in mind when confronted with its everyday existence. For the purposes of this essay, failure will be used as a stand in to represent whatever you define the word and feeling to be following your own observations and experiences.
The overwhelming sense of failure is real and the fear, shame, and embarrassment it induces is real. As an equally important reminder, we can’t control everything. We can however strive to prepare for and mitigate what we perceive to be public speaking disasters, even if we can’t control each impending storm. So in keeping with our theme of disasters/crises, the critical questions become:
- What do you need to weather the storm? This means doing a self-check in through scenario planning to determine what’s the worst that can happen and what you intend to do if it does.
- At what point should you evacuate? As in, how will you recognize the signs that you need to remove yourself from a speaking engagement that’s not right for you?
- How do you respond when the storm/failed speaking attempt happens? Think about how the situation can be salvaged in the moment or shortly thereafter. Is an apology required? Should you clarify or correct your comment/s? Do you need to find a means of capturing audience feedback about what isn’t working/clicking for them? Is a response even necessary or might it be more helpful to listen or leave all together?
- Who are your first responders? We all need support. Knowing the people who should be your first call when shit hits the fan can be the difference between being deeply submerged in shame or surrounded by a circle of folks who offer both positive affirmations and needed accountability.
- Where will you seek shelter? Consider places and spaces both online and in the physical world that can provide you with a sense of safety and belonging.
- What do you need to recover? Identify what needs to be poured into you to holistically restore your body and mind following a tough public speaking experience.
- When will you return to speak? A sense of failure developed after speaking publicly can very easily morph into a pattern of self-silencing or an outright refusal to ever try again. Be mindful of such changes in your speaking choices and overall confidence. Observe the difference between taking some time to undergo an immersive process of self-accountability if you’ve spoken in a way that has hurt or harmed others vs. silencing your voice or hiding your viewpoints indefinitely to avoid any chance of being personally uncomfortable/embarrassed in the future. Remember, we can’t control everything but we can mitigate when we make mistakes, keep showing up and rest assured in the knowledge that we have made it through previous public speaking storms newly equipped with lessons that will aid us in surviving should other crises come ashore.
Public speaking is both an art and a skilled science. The feel and focus of it frequently changes based on the audience, the message, and the messenger. The most overlooked aspect of speaking is simply knowing when to speak, when to just show up in solidarity (which also speaks volumes), when to let your body and/or actions speak for you and when to be strategically/creatively silent. Again, there are no perfect routes to repeatedly reaching public speaking glory. In fact, chasing such superficial outcomes will likely land you in a mindset of feeling personal failure often. Instead try moving with a spirit of humility, honesty, and a heartfelt commitment to the issues you’re speaking about. When your words are anchored to these principles, you will find yourself celebrating self-defined public speaking successes and will also possess the ability to find your way when navigating the torrents of public speaking storms. Either way, you will survive and it is with your survival that our communities live, lead, and lean into a future where we are all free.
Storytellers are often the very best public speakers! Browse through the available episodes under “Additional Resources” for both ideas, laughs and lessons on the myriad ways one can craft a story/captivate a crowd!