What a 15-year Old Taught me about Public Speaking

July 23, 2016

Growing up as a quiet boy who struggled to express myself, I had always envied people who were able to speak confidently in front of a large audience. That was until I discovered Toastmasters and developed my confidence in public speaking.

I was on a roll! Taking part in speech competitions and picking up trophies after trophies.  I felt like I had this “public speaking thing” worked out!  Fear of public speaking?  What fear?  Every time I took to the stage, I delighted in the experience of all attention on me, and reveled in the compliments I would receive after.  I was living my dream as a professional trainer, every speech is an opportunity to impress, and I was getting very confident about myself.

That was until one afternoon in July 2010.

It was during a difficult period of my life.  I was going through a painful breakup and I’ve been spending days feeling sorry for myself, and late nights on drinking binges didn’t make me feel a lot better.  But there I was at a secondary school, conducting a public speaking class for student leaders.  Since public speaking has been “my thing” and I’ve taught this program countless times, I thought I was able to make it through the day even as I was suffering a bad hangover.  I was merely going through the motions and I wasn’t fully present.

That was until the final segment of the course, when students took turns to deliver short speeches on the topic “One important lesson you’ve learnt in life”.

Then it was the turn of Janice (not her real name):

“Good afternoon Mr Coen and fellow classmates!  Raise your hands if you’ve ever found your parents naggy?”

*Arms shot up*

“Thank you.  I used to feel this way, until one night, my mum came home late at night, packed up her bags and left.  I was only four years old, and I’d never seen my mum again.  Whenever I saw my schoolmates going to school accompanied by their mothers, I will mmmmiss my mum.”

*At this point Janice burst into tears and was choking as she tried to speak*

I was shaken awake! OMG!  Here is a 15-year-old girl, crying her eyes out in front of me!  Wake up Coen!  You’ve gotta do something!

I suggested to Janice to take a break, go to the washroom to compose herself, and asked a couple of her friends to go with her.  Meanwhile, the other students took their turns to speak.

When Janice returned, she sat quietly in the corner, until all the other students have completed their speeches.  At that point, I had to make an important decision, Should I ask Janice to go through the “ordeal” again?  Should I give her another chance?

I chose the latter.

I then watched as Janice slowly stood up and took her place in the front of the classroom.  There was a collective hush of silence as she composed herself to speak…

She went through her opening sequence again, and picked up where she let off..

“As a student leader.  I treasure my relationships very much, and I never hesitate to show people how much I care.  For example, instead of sending text messages, I would give my friends hand-written notes regularly to show them my appreciation, or to encourage them to fight through their challenges in life.  The lesson I’ve learnt is that, I want to show people around me how much I care… Before…. It’s… Too… Late… I regret not showing my appreciation for mum, until it was too late.  So fellow classmates, show every moment how much you care because you’ll never know when it’s too late!”

*In unison, the entire class erupted in a standing ovation and cheered loudly for Janice*

I will never forget that scene, and the look on Janice’s face.  The tears, the sadness, has given way to a cheek-to-cheek grin and gleaming eyes.  I could see that a weight has been lifted off her shoulders!

At the end of the training, Janice came to me and her eyes wet from gratitude.

“Mr Coen!  Thank you so much for teaching me.  I’ve attended many workshops, but you’re a different trainer to the rest!  You’ve lit a spark in me!”

I couldn’t help but shed a tear too…

“No Janice.  I should be thanking you!  You have taught me an important lesson.  You’ve taught me that public speaking is not about putting on a performance to impress.  Public speaking is not about looking good, it is about being vulnerable, bearing your soul to share and inspire others, and healing yourself in the process.  I have been avoiding dealing with issues in my life, but I now know what to do!”

All the issues that I felt were insurmountable seemed to fade away immediately.  My heart felt the warmth from having made a difference to Janice’s life.  I had thought I was there to teach public speaking, but what I got was an important lesson in humanity.  We express ourselves not merely to make an impression, we express ourselves to make connections.  I’ve learnt that your presentation is what people see; your message is what people hear; but it’s WHO YOU ARE that, above all else, truly matters.

With this important revelation, I have changed the way I viewed and teach the topic of public speaking. Today, I don’t just teach techniques, such as body language, vocal and delivery. I help my clients unlock their inner confidence and power.

Be yourself…

Be vulnerable…

Seek to Connect and Serve, not Perform and Impress.

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