Presenting on purpose: my #publicspeaking journey
This sight is familiar to any of us who have stepped up to make a presentation at work, or to give a speech at a wedding.
The microphone stand, the podium and rows of seats, coupled with the prospect of speaking in public is the embodiment of a living nightmare.
The fear of public speaking, or 'glossophobia' is ranked as one of the most major human fears, among that of death or even large spiders.
These last few weeks in Blackhall, I have participated in a Legal Presentation Skills workshop under the tutelage of actors and legal practitioners alike, wanting to improve my delivery and my ability to deliver a point in as concise a fashion as possible.
Looking back before even considering to develop my public speaking skills, I was quite sympathetic to that deep fear that my colleagues could be experiencing during the sessions. The butterflies in my stomach, a dry mouth or shaking hands are all familiar signs of the nerves creeping in.
Whether it was deep breathing, closing my eyes and thinking of a song I enjoyed, even holding my mother's hand when she sat with me outside the examination room, I tried everything to try and control it.
What would happen to me is that my hands would begin to shake, or even worse, my legs would begin to shake which was not ideal if I would be standing up for several minutes, or if my knees would lock and make me prone to falling over, which is definitely not ideal.
Examinations are pressurised situations where there is a great deal at stake, be it a passing mark or progression to the next grade. It often happened with drama exams from about grade 5 onwards, when first learning Shakespeare monologues that I struggled to understand, and possibly my own self awareness as a person was coming to the fore, becoming more self conscious and worried about failure.
It would happen that my shoulders would tense up, or that I would be breathing into my chest rather than my diaphragm, not being able to sustain my voice that was shaking quite badly.
It took all of my will to not run from the room and not face the examiner behind the long table who was very well determining whether I passed or not.
This may or may not have been a milder form of stage fright, which was surprising given the amount of time I had already been doing exams or the Feis Maitiui without any nerves at all up until that point..
The avant-cellist Zoe Keating recalls in an interview with American photographer Chase Jarvis on his online show about being struck down with stage fright when she was younger, and described it in a way that was entirely relateable for anyone who may have practiced an instrument or even stood up to deliver a speech.
Her hands would become sweaty so that her fingers slipped off the fingerboard of her cello, or she could not move her bow across the strings, and one humiliating experience occurred during an audition when she physically dropped her bow.
That feeling of stage fright can become overwhelming, and in my own experience, while it was an extremely present feeling, it can eventually fade over time with enough practice and patience.
Even though I had experience of public speaking before starting out with the Presentation workshops, it was never a case of holding myself to a higher standard than the rest of my peers: it was almost automatic to want to be on an equal footing, to live in the moment and embrace the slight nerves, as well as embrace the chance to learn more and to improve.
Even while sitting down and waiting for my turn to give the first presentation of the entire workshop, I experiened that old flutter in my stomach that was a real callback to my examination days.
Yes, I still get nervous. No matter the context, the occasion and the audience. Whether this is a perpetual human reaction to being in such a vulnerable position, perhaps that is all it is.
A question to anyone reading: would you prefer to be interviewed by a panel of people or one person? Is the prospect of one person in the audience more intimidating than an entire group?
To be comfortable in front of an audience is just one of the many aspects of public speaking that can be grappled with. Quite often, either in work or education, giving a presentation is part and parcel of that environment, and can often be daunting especially in a professional environment.
Being judged is the silent fear in the back of the mind: What will they think about me? Does my voice sound alright? What if I forget something?
It is something to be said about speaking in front of a group of friends or even colleagues. There is support there, that no one is wishing you to fail. That feeling of safety was almost paramount for me when embarking on improving my own public speaking, knowing that no one was there to 'catch me out', and at the end of the day, your audience want you to succeed as well.
Flashback to three years ago, the prospect of speaking in front of a group of people outside of a drama examination would have been entirely terrifying. Now I take each occasion as a learning experience: did I take my pauses for long enough? Did I speak clearly? Was I using enough gesture to get my point across? Will people remember what I said or how I made them feel?
Returning to the Legal Presentation Skills, the workshop environment was quite supportive, with the tutors wanting each of us to bring the best out of ourselves and each other, not only as speakers but also as an audience.
Even in the world where social media reigns and even in monthly meetings of JCI Dublin where attendees are encouraged to tweet about the event, it can be discouraging to see a person immersed in their phone as a speech was being delivered, so that was something that was important, that we gave our full attention to each speaker as they presented, and it worked extremely well.
The movement and breathing portions of the workshop sessions brought me back to my Speech and Drama days when my teacher explained the different organs of the body and how each contributed to breathing effectively.
Attending the workshop awakened my love of drama once again, having worked over many years to attain the LAMDA Gold Medal in Verse and Prose, making my way through those dreaded exams.
The central learning point of the entire Legal Presentation Workshop focused mainly on when a solicitor is likely to speak in public, and such circumstances can include:
• in the office in front of colleagues or head partners
• to potential clients
• in company-related meetings
• in certain Court sittings
• Tribunals and Commissions
• in alternative dispute resolution such as arbitration hearings
Advocacy is an integral part of the legal profession, moreso for barristers than solicitors, since they are the instructing counsel with the brief who delivers the information on behalf of a client. A solicitors right of audience still exists and should be able to be developed, not just for the court room setting, but for any other forums in the legal profession and beyond.
It has been a journey of expression and of finding confidence, being able to work within a set format and be able to deliver the information in a concise manner.
I would admit to often being guilty of putting across too much information in a short period of time, of rushing and wanting to appear as if I have all the imaginable answers, but that is just not possible.
It is better to take the time to pause, to reflect on what is being said, to think of the legal arguments or the important points rather than wanting to give the impression of knowing everything, which is quite impossible.
Storytelling has become a staple in presentations, not just on a personal, individual level, but also for the benefit of business and pitching in sales. My colleagues in JCI Dublin have benefitted a great deal from the training and coaching provided by seminal public speaking coach, Eric Frtzpatrick who effectively takes the fear out of public speaking to make it all about storytelling, to 'persuade on purpose' during any presentation with that single goal in mind.
It is often easier to speak on a topic, a current affairs story, a legal development that you are passionate about, since it can be incredibly difficult to feign enthusiasm, since the 'Fake it Until you Make It' trend can only take you so far, and real passion is completely strong on its own.
For the final presentation last Friday (the day before the Bank Holiday, I might add, so each of us were itching to get the weekend started), it was a current affairs topic to be spoken on for three minutes. My chosen story was the legacy of Emma Mhic Mathuna and her contribution to confronting the CervicalCheck scandal.
All the while I was speaking, the vision was in my head of Ms. Mhic Mathuna speaking out for herself as well as for many other women given that dreadful diagnosis, where a timely intervention may have been the deciding factor in receiving important treatment to combat the disease.
My emotion was apparent, as I have very strong feelings about this story,, but I kept it contained, and in my own mind, that same approach could be used when defending a client, pleading a case to a tribunal, in any legal context.
It was an extremely difficult subject to speak on, but it was something that had to be said, even within a classroom with twelve other persons present. It was still a message that has been repeated up and down this country by many women far more capable of bringing change to the system.
Still, it was the awareness of the issue that was crucial here, that it is still ongoing, and that even in death, Emma Mhic Mathuna has a legacy to give to future generations of women, and to her own children.
This was the one thing that bolstered and gave me confidence to stand up in my own small way, but speaking on something that truly mattered to me..
So it was with all of that in mind, all the training, coaching and sense of new purpose, that I was able to deliver my thoughts on this subject.
The sight of Ms. Mhic Mathuna's funeral cortege being driven past the Dail and the Department of Health as a reminder of the State's failure to provide enough for women's' health in this country remains fixed in my mind, and which I wanted to drive home to my audience.
I am safe in the knowledge that a voice can be heard and has a right to be heard.
So for anyone reading who has not spoken in public before, who dreads the thought of even doing it, I will only say this: once the nerves fade into the background, once the mouth is not dry, once the legs have stopped shaking, it is really enjoyable to do. It's even possible to have fun with it, and truly, you can be glad when it's done.
The old adage goes 'Nothing venture, nothing gained'. My journey has taken me to national public speaking championships with JCI Ireland and winning the Novice trophy, to debating at a JCI European conference representing Ireland in a Debating Championship on an international level, and now to furthering my legal career.
All of that came from my choice to take that opportunity, to use my voice in a way that was entirely personal.
You never know until you try. Maybe your voice will shake. Maybe your knees will lock. Maybe you will take a longer pause than you need to. It's all part of learning.
Just remember to find your voice, recall your purpose, and lastly, to breathe. Breathing is a real necessity for life as well as public speaking.
You can purchase Eric Fitzpatrick's fantastic book 'Persuade On Purpose' in all good bookshops in Ireland and also via the ARK Speaking and Training website.