On Public Speaking

Yesterday, I gave a thirty-minute keynote lecture at a conference in front of about 160 teachers, and I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t feel nervous before it or during it, and I didn’t feel relieved once it was over. That is quite remarkable given what has gone before.

I have always liked being chosen for things, and this was true when I was a kid in school. I gained a reputation as an institutional ‘yes man’, something which has probably continued now into my working life actually, and this afforded some challenges. When I got into Year 7, I was asked to present the school’s publicity video, which was a tour de force of cringe. Me, in my pre-dropped-balls falsetto voice and with short shorts on over my skinny milky pins, running around the tennis court unable to hit the ball. Me stood on the bridge over the motorway next to the school, wincing into the camera. Me talking about how much I love textiles. Me ordering pie in the lunch queue.

That was fine, and I always enjoyed those things. That attention seeking impulse is the same one that guided me to apply to get on Countdown, and it is the same one that means I don’t mind being filmed teaching.

Public speaking was always difficult though, and a different story. I was very often asked to speak in secondary school, to the point that it genuinely became something of a sport for the teachers because they knew that I would flop. I would be asked to give the Vote of Thanks after big assemblies, in front of pupils and parents, and even though I was basically just saying Thanks for Coming and handing over a gift bag, I would treat it as though it was the Gettysburg Address, and would stumble over words, by voice would break and I would end up just stood their blushing.

I was asked to do something like this pretty much every year of secondary school, and it got incrementally worse. When I graduated from Sixth Form my old geography teacher  told me that it was something the teachers looked forward to seeing whenever I would speak as it was funny when I got it wrong. I appreciated his candour I think.

I was sent from the school to a debating competition but had not been told what debating was. I was left in a classroom on my own one lunch time by the Gifted and Talented coordinator to watch a TV tape about drugs awareness and was told to make a speech about it. I got to the competition to find that other schools had been coached, prepared and were extremely articulate, using all the rhetorical devices under the sun. I just had to stand up and say something to the effect of ‘Don’t do Cannabis please’. Bad.

I can say without doubt that I hated it each time. I wasn’t lacking with confidence – if I was, I wouldn’t have even been able to agree – but I was labouring under the impression that the more I did it, the better I would get, and this wasn’t particularly bearing fruit.

The final thing I was asked to do before university was to speak at the Doncaster Lord Mayor’s Parade with another sixth former. Naturally, despite not wanting to do it, I agreed immediately. Only later was I told that my ‘speech’ would be a bible reading in the Catholic church. This was a bit compromising for someone distinctly without faith. But I had said yes.

Reading the bible in the church, with all the pomp and gravitas of the words, was different. It was the first time I enjoyed it a bit, and it was the first time I felt like I had done a decent job. This was by no means a religious event for me – quite the opposite – I found it very easy to speak confidently and publicly when I felt that i didn’t believe what I was saying (perhaps a career in politics beckons).

In university I didn’t do any speaking. I joined the debating society because everybody else did, but seeing the people speak with such seemingly effortless ability – wth wit, humour, knowledge and persuasion – did stick with me, and made me ‘want’ to be like that, but without any desire to put in the work to make it happen. One speaker, someone I now follow on Twitter, was Rupert Myers; I can’t recall even what he was talking about, but he was just so relaxed doing it, and doing it so well, that it stuck with me.

Now as a teacher, I stand up and speak in front of people every day. But it is different with children. I can police the children’s response to my words, and they don’t hold grudges if the ‘speech’ goes wrong; I don’t feel anxious before I stand up to speak to them. It’s just fun.

I have, however, started to do ‘public speaking’ again on the conference circuit. When leading workshops it is essentially like teaching, and the anxiety is not about public speaking as much as about the adults in front of me thinking I am thick, unclear or – worse – not funny.

Dave McQueen came to our school and did a session on confidence, public speaking and presentation skills, and this had a huge influence on me. Dave is the most effortless – or effortless-seeming – speaker,  and his tips about the role and importance of storytelling, and not relying on text and PPT slides changed the way I do things.

I spoke at the UKLA International Conference last month on the topic of Hopemongering, and I enjoyed every second. I was talking about something I am passionate about, and I took time to learn and rehearse. I knew what I was wanting to say, I had the time to think about how to get my information across, how to be engaging and entertaining, and how to essentially ‘move the audience’ in the way I wanted them to be moved.

Yesterday, at the TeachFirst East London Conference, I had a hall full of trainee and NQT teachers, and I did another talk on Hopemongering and it was the very first time that I felt no anxiety whatsoever. When things didn’t go 100% to plan, I wasn’t derailed. When I lost track of my time a little bit, I was able to adapt and not panic. I felt at ease and was able to look outwardly into the audience and use that to monitor how things were going, rather than obsessing over my own comportment rather than on the content and the message.

I would much rather have just been helped to learn how to speak well in public as a kid. I have a long way to go still. I forget my line of thought, get tangled up in my own inescapable collection of anecdotes and I have too much willingness to deviate from the script in ways that may or may not be useful.

But yes, it has taken me 15 years but I now feel like I am starting to get there.



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