Very few of us enjoy public speaking, but for many of us there comes a time when it cannot be avoided. Here is the most important lesson that I have learnt.
One of my uncles was a clergyman, who worked for almost all his life in the East Midlands, in what I will call the Diocese of L---. And it was a lifetime’s work, because clergymen never stop. Long after retirement age they are still stepping in when needed to cover weddings and funerals, and still carrying out pastoral work. When my uncle died at a ripe old age, some years ago, we went to his funeral and, as you may imagine, it was a big affair. In fact it is the only time I have ever seen a funeral advertised on the noticeboard at the church gate as, “Here! Today! At 3.30! The funeral of …!”, for all the world as if it was a Hollywood premiere. The church was packed with fellow clergy and the faithful, many of whom clearly regarded “Parishioner” as an occupation and probably entered it as such on their passport. So it was a knowledgeable congregation; and if you have spoken in public, you will know that it is a great deal easier to do so in front of a hundred strangers than in front of twenty people who have known you for years and who you are going to meet again and again in the future.
The officiating clergy were, therefore, rather nervous, knowing that everything from their phrasing to their frocks was subject to the merciless criticism of their peers. (Don’t for a moment expect to find anything approaching charity within a church.) Given the years of service that my uncle had given, it would not have been unreasonable to expect the Bishop himself to turn up to give the address; but he was unavoidably detained elsewhere, allegedly, and had accordingly sent along his archdeacon as substitute. Well, maybe he wasn’t actually the archdeacon (I do not have the order of service in front of me and anyway I do not wish to make identification easy) but he certainly looked as if he ought to be an archdeacon. And he effected a miracle.
As soon as he rose to speak, everyone in that church relaxed. He had such confidence, such serenity and such poise. We knew at once that he wasn’t going to stumble and stutter over his lines; he wasn’t going to say anything awkward or inappropriate; he wasn’t going to make us feel embarrassed or upset. I don’t know exactly how he did it, because there was nothing especially imposing about his appearance, but he had a definite presence. All he did was rise and take half a dozen steps, and by then, before he said a single word, we had all sat back, our shoulders were no longer up around our ears, and we settled down in contentment to listen. We knew we were in safe hands.
And so what I learned from the archdeacon of L--- was this: if you appear to be nervous, your audience will, through sympathy, become nervous too. They will be tense and anxious, and because of that, they will not listen and they certainly won’t take anything in. They will be more concerned about you as a speaker than about what you are saying. Of course you will feel nervous, everyone does, but you mustn’t look nervous or act nervous. So, when it happens that you have to speak in public, do what I do and pretend to be the archdeacon of L---, and by the time you open your mouth, everyone will be attentive and receptive. And then there is a better chance that, instead of squirming awkwardly, people might actually remember what you say.