Do you remember when the English teacher used to make you stand up in front of the class and read aloud? Do you remember how embarrassed and uncomfortable that used to make you feel? Things like that stick with us, especially things we’re forced to do outside of our comfort zone and in that example the chances are it was generally a bad experience which invited teasing from your classmates in the playground at break time.
At school, I always volunteered for plays – the Angel Gabriel, King Herod and my swansong Ali Baba leading his band of 40 thieves, were fine moments for me (my parents still have a cringe-worthy VHS tape somewhere of me in that last role). I was always a bit nervous but performing on stage in the glare of a spotlight is for entertainment, it’s funny, it didn’t matter if I got the words right or wrong because a teacher would prompt me and generally I couldn’t see the audience anyway. Then when I was about 14 I was asked to take part in the school public speaking team. I’d never been afraid of speaking out, but the thought of standing up in front of people to do it was a different kettle of fish altogether, very different indeed from getting dressed up in full makeup and dancing round the stage holding the History teacher’s hand.
I was one of a team of three, the idea being one would do the beginning, the middle and the end. We all helped write our presentation and I was voted the middle by my classmates, aka the one responsible for the biggest bit. We started off by just practicing together in a spare classroom, then moved on to presenting the same thing to classmates, then the year group, then the school and finally we were asked to represent the school in a local public speaking competition. We nailed it, we fielded questions from the audience and we won….hurraaah! And as a result we qualified to go through to the finals at an NSPCC Public Speaking Competition in Birmingham’s NEC…..I was terrified. I don’t know how many people the NEC holds but I can assure you it was more than the assembly hall. Friends and family kept telling me not to worry, to imagine the audience in their underpants – I was too nervous for my brain to do any imagining at the same time as trying to recall the words of my speech!
The day came and we were somewhere near the beginning of the running order. We delivered our speech without fault and beamed at the crowd, our nervousness gone. The time came to invite questions on our chosen topic (deforestation of the rainforests incidentally) and as ‘middle’ I was responsible for responding to the audience. I waited with baited breath, expecting to get some fairly light questioning – we were kids after all. The question that came was a long winded, multi-point affair, something about slash and burn policy in the Amazon. My mind was blank and the world was very still at that moment, I didn’t even understand the question let alone have the means to come up with an answer. At that moment I knew what the phrase to “die on stage” means. I bumbled through a so-called answer. We came off stage. We did not win. We did get asked to line up to meet Princess Margaret though and it was being televised so every cloud and all that, at least my mum and dad could say their Joanne had been on telly.
I’ve never been very competitive and I wasn’t really bothered that we didn’t win. The one thing that stuck with me was that we were asked to stand in front of thousands of people and talk, what a privilege. Someone, somewhere, thought I knew enough about deforestation to convince other people to listen to me.
I learned so many things from that one experience, here are my Top 10, the last five are particularly important:-
- I am capable of learning something completely new and speaking convincingly about it in front of lots of people
- write cue cards – shaking furiously whilst holding an A4 sheet of paper is not confidence inspiring
- no one can know everything, it’s OK not to know all the answers – it’s about how you deal with not knowing the answer that’s the key
- nerves are fine, great actors of our generation still have them – nerves will stop you getting too big for your boots
- know your stuff – whatever the subject chances are you know more about it than the audience
Sooner or later as grown-ups we will be asked/forced/volunteered to stand up and speak in front of people and those old feelings of English class embarrassment and awkwardness may come flooding back. If you’re lucky you may be asked to stand up in a team meeting and present an idea or piece of work you’ve done. If you’re slightly less lucky you may be asked to stand up on stage, in the spotlight, in front of hundreds or thousands of people. Either way, if you remember the Top 10 you won’t go far wrong. No one will jeer or taunt you because everyone else will just be thankful that they’re not stood up in front of everyone! If you want to get good at anything, guitar, singing, driving you have to practice, practice, practice and public speaking is just the same.
It’s hard to believe as I write this that it’s actually 30 years since I stood up on stage at the NEC in Birmingham. Thankfully I’ve not died on stage since…but there’s time yet.