Dear Donagh, Thank you for your website, and thank your colleague Simon for me. I enjoy the new material every month and I always look forward to it. I don’t think I'd have the courage to put myself out there in public every month in the way that you do. My own problem is related to this. In my job I have to speak in public; I'm a lecturer in […] Institute of Technology. You would expect that I would have become used to it by now, but I am as nervous before a lecture as I was when I started about ten years ago. The subject-matter is not the problem; the problem is facing a crowd.. I feel as nervous as a kitten, even though I am twice their age. My throat tightens and I hear myself speaking in an unnatural voice. Afterwards I'm exhausted for hours. I’m becoming very tired of it. I can't understand it. I've read books on public speaking, but they make my situation worse, if anything. Since I read you every month I thought I might ask your view about this. You always have suggestions; would you pitch a few this way please? J.
Dear J, Thanks for your kind words. Yes, ten years is a long time to have a dry throat. And the hours of exhaustion…. Yes, I’ll share your woes and make a few suggestions.
I have to do a lot of public speaking too. Unlike you, I don’t find it a strain. But I will never forget the beginning - and especially the time before the beginning. I lived in dread of the day when I would have to speak in public. In practice sessions my knees used to knock and I used to crouch down like a beaten dog. Left to myself I would never have started. When I did start, it was awful: one of the audience began to laugh so much that she had to leave. I hadn’t said anything funny; she was laughing at me, and I knew it. The odd thing is that I don’t remember any more after that. No I didn’t pass out or anything! Maybe I've just suppressed the memory. But somehow I recovered from that terrible day long ago.
Among all the teachers we have had since childhood, a few were naturals. I remember three in particular. Make a list from your own experience and then narrow it down to one. Imagine that particular teacher beside you, proud as punch of his former pupil, and the way he might look at you. His presence, even in imagination, is a powerful support. I say ‘his’, because the impression I got from your letter was of someone feeling fatherless up there on the rostrum (which is not to suggest that you feel fatherless in other situations). We have to be inducted into different roles, and a father figure eases the way. Remember how kindly, how fatherly, that old teacher was. You may not feel it, but that is what you are to your students: a father figure. We say all sorts of more liberated things such as: partners in research, etc. - all very cerebral. Don’t get locked into the definitions of ‘teacher’ and ‘students’; in the world of studies you are their father. Get infected with fatherliness from the memory of that old teacher, and pass it on.
Fear is always fear of something. We’re afraid of making fools of ourselves in public. My first job was teaching philosophy in England, and I was totally intimidated by all those posh accents. To make matters worse, fixing a squeak in the floor of my office on my first day, I put a nail through a copper water-pipe and flooded half the college! Strangely, it helped! Within a few days I was no longer afraid of making a fool of myself - because I knew that this information was now in the public domain! It was a great liberation. It put something human into my relationship with the students, to supplement the dry bread of philosophy.
There’s a sense in which there’s no such thing as public speaking. Every student listening to you is as vulnerable in him or herself as you are - and would be relieved and encouraged if they realised you had this in common with them. At some level every one of them is a lost child, looking for a father to lead them into a wider society. Make sure you look at them. I don’t mean scan you eye across the room: that is exactly what turns them into ‘the public’. Look at individuals. Then you are speaking to individuals; it’s no longer ‘public speaking’. Try and get to know their names, if you don’t already. Be a father to them, but don’t tell them that in words; tell them by your presence, and by your interest in them. Be playful and gentle like a father.
Must go now! An bhfuil cead agam dul amach?