When I first started teaching Public Speaking, I worked with a group of 12 young women. They each had different reasons for registering. They all had something in common: fear.
One student described her scariest speaking situation as a time when she attended an event featuring a speaker she admired. When it was time for the audience Q & A, a microphone was placed in the aisle and a long line began to form in front of the microphone. “I could hear my heart beating in my chest as I got closer and closer to the microphone,” the young woman described. “I really wanted to ask my question, but I started sweating and shaking and as the time drew closer and closer for my turn, I suddenly wanted to bolt out the back door.”
The other students nodded in empathy.
I looked around at the group. “So, what actually happens when it’s your turn?”
“As I step up to the microphone, the audience turns towards me,” one student offered.
Once more, lots of head nodding.
“And what’s scary about that?” I prompted. “What does the audience do that makes you so afraid?”
“They… um. They see me.”
“That’s right. They see you. And then, when you step up to the microphone and ask your question, what does the audience do that makes you so afraid?
“They hear me.”
“That’s right,” I responded. “They hear you. When you speak, the audience sees you and hears you. And I understand that can be terrifying. It is also what we deeply desire.”
I then began to work with a very shy student for whom English was not her first language. She had a hard time speaking loud enough to be heard.
As an exercise, I asked her to walk to the far end of the lobby, by the exit door. Earlier in the class, the students had written a statement on a note card. “Imagine this was your last day on earth,” I instructed. “What would you want to share with the world? What you write doesn’t matter to me, but it needs to be important to you.”
The student took her place by the door. I instructed her to say her phrase to the rest of the class. If we truly heard her—and I meant not only volume-wise but also heart-wise—we would nod our heads. If we didn’t quite get what she was saying, we would remain still. No nodding.
The student began: “We are all loved,” she said in a tiny, barely audible voice. The class sat still.
“Good,” I encouraged. “Try again.”
She said it again: “We are all loved;” still no response. She tried 3 more times, and with each try she grew more and more frustrated. She also got louder. The final time she spoke out, she looked right at us and convinced us with her whole body and voice and heart that we were, indeed, loved. Spontaneously, the class rose to their feet; we nodded and applauded.
The student’s knees softened and she bent over from the waist, laughing and crying.
I walked up to her and asked gently: “What’s all this about? All the laughing and the tears?”
She looked up at me, smiling and wet-faced.
“It just feels so good. It feels so good.”
We want to be seen and heard. Sometimes we have to work hard for it. We have to strip away the masks in front of our faces and the tricks we do with our voices. That can be really scary at first. But when we succeed–when we are truly seen and heard—it feels so good.