“I read your book two times. I love, love it. It changed my life.”
Comments like this one from my readers dance in my heart with gratitude. Writing books is a delight for me. But public speaking? That idea made my stomach cramp.
I inhaled deep and took the plunge. I joined a local Toastmaster group. “You have to connect with your audience,” blurted my friend, a well-established speaker.
I nodded. “I know. And no doubt, give a powerful message.”
“It’s more than that. You need to have emotion, gestures, facial expressions and voice variation.” She paused. “And it’s equally important to have eye contact.”
Gulp. Eye contact? That’s it for me. Being blind the task was impossible.
Although other speakers might have faced anxiety, with nerves twisting like pretzels, I joined them in this struggle. But adding to my plight, the lack of sight intensified each fear.
Hoping to gather gems to become an effective public speaker, I tip toed into the room for my first Toastmasters meeting. Little did I know this experience would shove me into dangerous and somewhat humiliating territory.
The day came for my first speech., I gave a shy smile while a member guided me to the front of the room. With clammy hands and a racing heart, I shared my “ice breaker” speech. It was an ice breaker all right. I nearly froze. With a shaky voice, I began my story, adding expressions and colorful descriptions while stammering. And that was the up side. When I finished my five-minute speech, another member helped me to my seat.
Evaluation time came. I waited with a blend of fear and anticipation. Not bad, in fact, positive comments and encouraging remarks sprinkled through.
Then came a blow I didn’t expect.
“Janet, we need to find a way for you to continue to face the audience,” the evaluator said with kindness in her voice.
“What…what do you mean?”
To my embarrassment, I learned that during my speech, I’d inadvertently turned my body and ended up facing the side of the room rather than the audience. A hot surge of heat burned my face.
I needed to find a way to remedy this. And the perfect solution was to request a table or lectern to use as a reference point.
Though that problem was solved, the eye contact part still remained an issue. Another device came to mind. Right before I began speaking, I asked the audience to respond to my greeting. Once they did, I listened for their voices, and therefore knew exactly where they were seated. As I spoke, I turned in that direction. I put the same plan into action in all my future speeches.
But the message itself needed planning as well. Most speakers have the luxury of using notes. I hadn’t learned Braille, so I tossed that option out. It was time to craft another solution to remember my outline. I practiced, and then practiced some more. Word-for-word memorization was dangerous. If I forgot a portion, I’d be stuck.
A more effective route for me was to use acrostics to usher me smoothly from point to point. I would take a word such as “HAPPY” to remind me of the five main points in my outline, with each topic represented by the first letter in the word chosen. To my delight, I found this method added clarity to my message, thereby making it easier for the audience to follow each transition point.
Years swept by and the task proved easier. And I found the use of props also highlighted my message. In one of my talks, I placed two plastic spray bottles similar in shape and size on the table before me. Then I related a recent episode where, in haste and unable to tell the difference, I had grabbed the bottle of what I thought was hair spray.
After mists of generous proportions dribbled all over my head, I noticed my hair becoming wet rather than the usual hold. Puzzled, I called out to my husband and held the bottle in the air. “What kind of hair spray is this?”
He read the label. “Honey, that’s the jewelry cleaner we bought at the mall.”
I then asked my audience: “How often, when facing tough situations, are we blinded by negative emotions? And how often are we quick to choose the wrong thing and spray into our heart discouraging thoughts of insecurity, fear, and doubt?”
Using creativity, and encouragement from fellow Toastmasters I found new ways to add a bit of pizzazz to my talks to make my message impactful. This is a needed goal to direct the focus to my message rather than on the fact I cannot see.
“You’re getting a standing ovation,” a friend whispered as she helped me to my seat. This honor, though humbling, reinforces the need for perseverance. But it also ushers a new insight about audiences. Each person listening to my message has a unique reason for being there. It might be to receive bits of insight, a dose of inspiration, or practical ways to move beyond struggles and pain, but each person is there for a reason.
And when I sense those needs, my focus is clear. And even though I can’t connect with their eyes, my message connects with their hearts.