Public speaking shouldn’t be scary

Public speaking shouldn’t be scary. It’s just talking out loud, which most of us do every day. If it’s on a subject you know about and  have prepared for, it should be no harder than talking to a group of friends or colleagues.  Unfortunately for many people that is not the case. It is one of the scariest things they ever have to do.  Some surveys have said more people are worried about speaking in public, than they are of dying. I don’t really believe that.  If it is true, it’s because people haven’t grasped how bad dying is, because no-one who’s died ever speaks about it.

I’m lucky, because I love showing off and have made a career out of it, but I still get scared. I mainly worry about dying on stage. Not in the Tommy Cooper sense, where he actually did die on stage, but in the drying up, forgetting my talk, getting booed off sense of the word dying.

On that cheery note, this week I was delighted to be a judge for the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge. It’s the largest youth speaking competition  in the world.  The event is open to  schoolchildren in London and Essex. Having judged in previous years in Hounslow, Newham and Tower Hamlets, this time it was in Teddington, with school speaking champions from the London boroughs of Merton and Richmond.

Seventeen brave youngsters stood up and spoke for around three minutes each. They’d all received coaching from Speakers Bank, an excellent organisation that provides free training in public speaking for fifteen year olds in state schools. The standard was as always impressive. The courage these youngsters show is inspiring.  When I was fifteen I would have been scared stiff.

I’ll pick out one youngster for particular praise. Let’s call her Liffey. That’s not her real name, but I don’t want to embarass her, so I’ve used a cunning Irish river based pseudonym. After about a minute she lost her way and completely forgot her talk. She looked petrified for a few seconds, but as the audience shouted out encouragement, she took a few deep breaths and continued.  I think she missed some bits out, but the important thing is she carried on, and her talk still made perfect sense.  During the moments when she was struggling, she pushed both hands slowly downwards as though she was on a set of parallel bars. It seemed to s help her rise above her nerves.

Of course she didn’t win, but she was a winner in the eyes of most in the room. Every one of the seventeen was a winner.

It always amazes me the subjects that the youngsters speak about. They are  so diverse, from being an orphan to coping with being short. Of course there are a few favourites that seem to crop up every year. Bullying is always popular, along with knife crime and body image. Respecting your parents seemed to be a recurring theme this time. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks often get a mention, which is fine by me, but if I hear another speech that starts, ‘I have a dream’ I will scream.It’s great to quote famous people, but it’s far better to tell your own story.

The actual winner on the night was Richard who spoke about gay marriage. He was incredible and should do well in the Grand Final in the summer if he qualifies. Second place went to Samuel who reminded me of a young Kris Akabussi. He was hilarious and a natural performer talking about computer games. There were seven judges in all. On my scorecard I was pleased to have correctly picked the top two, albeit in the wrong order.

At the end of the night, I spoke with a couple of the youngsters. I wished Richard all the best if he reaches the Grand Final. And I found Liffey and told her she must not give up, because she’s going to be a great speaker. I didn’t want her to feel bad about losing her way, so I told her the story of my first ever stand up comedy gig.

I was so nervous that I’d forget my material, I’d written prompt lines on the back of my hand in felt tip pen. Unfortunately,  nerves made me really hot. The back of my hand was soon dripping with sweat. When I glanced down for a prompt, all I saw was a sea of blue felt tip, and no words visible at all.  I did exactly what Liffey did, I took a deep breath, jumped back into the routine a bit further down the line and finished a little early. I didn’t use the parallel bars technique because it hadn’t been invented then.

No-one in the audience realised and I left the stage to applause.  It was by no means a standing ovation, but at least they didn’t throw anything.

Liffey said she would carry on speaking. I hope she does. If you have children in London and Essex encourage them to take part next year. Hopefully it will roll out to the rest of the UK in future years. And if you are a professional speaker, volunteer to be one of their judges.  It’s always fun and I left Teddington with a bottle of Rioja, which I’ll be sampling as soon as Lent is over.

You can find out more about the Speak Out Challenge here

Jem –  Greedies Cafe, Isleworth  – 1st April 2010 (but it’s not an April Fools Day trick, honest!)