Here’s a conundrum – as a matter of fact, is public speaking an ‘art’ or ‘skill’? And, whichever the answer, is that a matter of generally-accepted definition, or just personal opinion?
I ask this because I know some people who are proficient public speakers – and have attended my share of plush dinners at which part of the attraction is an advertised celebrity or ‘professional’ speaker – and they make it appear all very simple. [Or perhaps making it seem so is part of the ‘art’?].
Are such individuals are just naturally hard-wired to speak well in public, or it is because they’ve worked hard and over time (i.e. have done their ‘10,000 hours’, if you’ve ever read the Matthew Syed book Bounce or the other theories on this theme) have developed a well-honed skill at it?
Perhaps the ultimate answer is ‘a bit of both’.
Years ago I recall my father reporting that he’d attended a City function at which someone gave an apparently impromptu but brilliantly insightful and amusing address. Having been introduced to the chap at the reception afterwards my father had congratulated him and asked, as a matter of interest, how long it had taken him to compose it. The reply was “six or seven months”!
When I was a small kid in particular, I was naturally a bit shy and reticent. Although (like everyone else) I possessed a certain capacity to dominate social proceedings, when meeting new people I tended to begin gatherings as one of the quieter ones present. However, as a meeting – or an evening – wore on I might gradually contribute more or become louder. Perhaps in this context my instinctive modus operandi was to start low-key, i.e. until I had gauged the ‘feel’ of the event and thereby chosen how I was going to play it. Perhaps later on, in adulthood, the imbibing of a quantity of alcohol might also have had something to do with it.
As a schoolboy, I boarded from the ages of 7 to 18. At my prep school, at a certain seniority (the age of 12?), it was required that every boy in turn read the lesson in school assembly. The background to my story was that, from my earliest days, I had decided that holding forth in public was not something I would enjoy or be good at and so had taken the easy way out by avoiding it wherever possible.
Remaining standing at the end of a hymn, whilst everyone else (pupils and masters alike) then sat, and having to read a lesson to them therefore seemed a terrifying ordeal in prospect. As it proved in practice. The first time I did it I suffered badly from nerves beforehand and performed my piece like a wilting sunflower. The second and third time didn’t get any better. Even I was at a loss to explain why, as a kid who played every sport imaginable with gusto and loved nothing more than a rough and tumble or particularly a scrap, I could transform instantly into a jibbering wreck when asked to do nothing more than read a couple of verses from the Bible out loud.
In contrast, when my mother died eight years ago, my father initially vetoed any of his grandchildren speaking or performing at her thanksgiving service both because of the ‘ordeal’ it might involve and his view that there was nothing worse than someone (be they aged five or sixty-five) breaking down in public at such gatherings. My brother, whose sons were aged 14 and 12 at the time, assured him that they were completely relaxed about speaking in public because at their prep school it had been compulsory since Day One.
In the event, as it happens, both boys performed admirably.
Fast-forward to yesterday, when I was due to speak at a family luncheon party of about sixty people in a well-known West End hotel.
As an adult – well, okay, from about the age of twenty onwards – my position on public speaking has been as follows.
In prospective work situations, e.g. chairing meetings (irrespective of the number of people involved) or giving an introductory talk, or giving a presentation, or even presenting a quasi-legal case to its best advantage, any metaphorical ‘advance nerves-o-meter’ to which I was strapped would have registered barely a flicker. I actually quite enjoy the process of working out what message I want to get across and then how best to do it (in terms of simplicity of explanation and therefore hopefully impact). If pressed, I guess that perhaps that the sense of enjoyment and reward that I gain from the process potentially springs from a personal conceit that I’m quite good at it.
However, at purely social functions I’m far less confident.
When under an obligation to perform at one of these I tend to compare my projected efforts unfavourably with those of others who, in the past, I have seen give brilliant or bright and witty little speeches when asked ‘to do the honours’ at weddings, retirement parties and indeed family lunches.
The truth is that I am not a person who is naturally funny and/or can turn on the charm on with a tap. Almost without exception, my best (or is it only?) quips, gags, hilarious innuendo, wry insights and funny stories emerge only by chance and in informal gatherings (e.g. drunken lunches) when I am under no specific pressure to perform.
Furthermore, when it comes to Northern Irish comedian Frank Carson’s bon mot (“It’s the way I tells ’em …) – i.e. the theme that performance matters more than the material – I am not a natural comic. Even when I have what I consider ‘a great joke’ in my locker, I’m never confident that I can deliver it well. And there’d be nothing more embarrassing than having lined up four best jokes … gone for the best one first … and then finding that the audience produces not a titter in response. You’ve got three more to go – and nowhere to hide!
And so to yesterday. I had been ‘gifted’ the gig by my brother, who had suggested that I was the obvious person among us to ‘say a few words’, about three weeks ago. Rather as I would imagine would be the case for a hardened criminal who has been sentenced to public execution, initially the prospect concentrated the mind wonderfully. I began recording little ideas, facts, reminders and scraps of information in a notebook. I spent some time researching on the internet. I even tried composing a ‘first version’ in a Word document.
However, with four days to go, I had to face the reality. I had no recognisable scheme, logic or theme. The possible comments or ‘jokes’ that I had amassed were simply not funny. In short, the closer the event came, so did my sense of ordeal and panic.
On the day, I awoke particularly early and in a cold sweat. I then spent the best part of an hour and a quarter wandering around the garden after breakfast in a final desperate (and unsuccessful) attempt to conjure up even a sliver of inspiration. I travelled into London at the appointed time on the Tube with my son, having by then ‘given up’ and accepted that the fact that I was about not just to take part in, but be personally responsible for, a major public disaster.
We arrived, as did everyone else. Drinks were served – I gulped down a beer. Nearly an hour later we sat down – I drank three glasses of white wine with the starter and a further two of red with the main course, all the while making polite conversation with those around me whilst simultaneously trying to work out how much I’d be prepared to pay to be somewhere else – anywhere else – at that moment in time. It was quite a sum.
Finally someone asked “Isn’t it about time you did your bit?”
It was. I rose to my feet, took a central position on the floor – in that instant abandoning every scheme, note, idea and theme that I’d ever developed or considered using – took a deep breath … and just made it all up as I went along.
Looking back now I think I gained a vague notion, somewhere between three and six minutes in, that things were not going quiet as badly as I had anticipated. That said, it was also as if I’d somehow managed to get the aeroplane off the ground, but without much idea as to where we were headed and still less how we were going to land if we ever located an airfield upon which to do it.
And that was it, really. This morning I cannot recall in detail anything I said, how I said it, or whether at the time I was getting a favourable reaction (or indeed the opposite). Suffice it to say that there was a semblance of a round of applause at the end and subsequently, as the event wound down, several people came up and congratulated me.
Sitting here, sipping my third black coffee of the morning, it seems the possibility does exist that I may have got away with it. Or maybe not – perhaps I shall find out more of the truth today.
One thing I do know. As happened the last time this task fell to me, I’ve decided that I’m never going to put myself through that kind of ordeal again – if I can possibly avoid it.