Teachers as Public Speakers

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The feeling was a familiar one, a choking nostalgia whose warm hands climbed up my torso to grip my throat. My mind lost focus and my synapses relaxed, leaving my mouth to freestyle. My own hands felt as though they were vibrating.

This is not my response to Rison poisoning, but was what I was going through as a stood up to speak to a room full of teachers on Friday.

The strangest part of this is that I was fully prepared for the event, knew what I needed to say and I didn’t actually feel remotely nervous. Only once I opened my trap did the shuddering heebs start to fizz me all up. This is my Pavlovian response to the first time addressing a group of strangers and it annoys the life out of me. It misrepresents me. In that achingly long first minute, my body is my enemy.

Not that you would notice, apparently. Unless people are placating me, it would seem that most of my discomfort doesn’t ‘bubble up’ to the surface, and it remains unobserved in most cases. It is a mind shackle.

David McQueen was facilitating at our ETSA Festival of Oracy. Dave was leading the first session about Speaking Skills for Teachers, and I was doing the second, which was about the Craft of Speechmaking. He makes public speaking look effortless, and he appears to be as at ease in front of strangers as you could possibly be. Maybe he is at ease, but it certainly isn’t effortless – knowing how much practice and experience goes into building the confidence to speak made me feel slightly better about my roughshod slapstick INSET delivery. Dave made it clear that to be a good speaker, you need more than good knowledge and a skeleton plan.

Certain things that Dave shared in the session really struck me, and stuck with me. I will share these briefly, and explain why they are relevant to me.

We may feel like imposters, but we shouldn’t feel that way because we are not. I completely relate to the fear of being caught out, the idea that at some point in my presentation everyone will realise that I am some kind of fraudster and will stop listening, or – even worse – nodding. If we know what we are talking about enough to be giving a presentation, then we are not imposters. What we need is practice, and the experience of speaking up, in order to refine and learn our message.

Dave spoke about how presentations are often ‘Death by PowerPoint’. The room nodded along, as did I, though I was doing so in the horrible knowledge that I was going to deliver a 30-page PowerPoint presentation to everyone as soon as he had finished speaking! He is right though. If you are just going to fill slides with text, and awkward read them out using sideways glances, you may as well let everyone have a morning in bed and just email the slides. It is a presentation, we should present. The slides shouldn’t distract from the speaker.

Posture is important, and self-presentation goes a long way. I didn’t mention this to Dave but our office staff were still in hot flushes about him at about half one, a solid four and a half hours after he graced the sign-in desk with his presence. Why? Confidence. Whilst this post is becoming like a slightly creepy fan letter (I can only apologise) Dave has your attention even before he speaks because he expresses without words. Gesture, gesticulation, placement in the dais, stance… these are as much part of your speech as the words you speak. To quote a fairly crap poem I wrote in university about gender norms and masculinity… A feeble posture may well foster / talk about you, child This made me reflect on why I sometimes feel like an imposter when talking about teaching… probably because I am standing like someone who wants to apologise for interrupting them.

Finally, it is worth recognising that whilst it is a very common fear, the fear of public speaking is pretty irrational. Generally, nothing really bad can come of it, even if it doesn’t go well.

I attended a session yesterday, elsewhere, and the speaker had such a low level of engagement, charisma or character to her words that I found myself feeling aggressively bored. Words were read from a screen. The walls echoed a cacophony of shrill high monotone. In my head, I was saying ‘Make it stop.’ I don’t want people in the sessions I facilitate to feel that way about me.

And so…it is time to change up what I do. Back to the drawing board!

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