Monday, September 30, 2013

Public Speaking

The other day I had the wonderful opportunity to give a short talk at the public library in downtown Victoria. When asked in advance about what my topic would be, I said, "Finding hope in a hopeless world." After all, 'Abdu'l-Baha said that we must "make hopeful the hopeless ones".

And while I had originally thought to write some of the ideas from the talk in an article here, I realized that I've actually said most of what I wanted to say in previous articles. Why repeat myself?

Instead, I thought I would share a little bit about what I learned from it.

To start, though, here are as few things I've found useful when public speaking. First, pray. Pray before opening your mouth, for it is only by the inspiration from the Realms on High that you will say anything that will touch the hearts, and I find the hearts far more important to address than the minds. "Turn thy face toward the Kingdom of God," are 'Abdu'l-Baha's words, "ask for the bestowals of the Holy Spirit, speak, and the confirmations of the Spirit will come."

The second thing is kind of odd, but makes sense when you see it in action: Refer to something that is present. Of course, this isn't a hard and fast rule, but just something that I try to do on a regular basis. I look for something that connects to my talk and try to refer to it. For example, in my recent talk, I turned to Shoghi, my son, who was sitting in the front row, and asked him how old he was. Of course, I already knew his age, but this gave the audience something real to refer to. This is something that I picked up from Abdu'l-Baha's talks and have seen work quite well with others. In fact, if you look through Promulgation of Universal Peace, the record of His talks in the US and Canada, you will see that He often begins His talks with a reference like that.

The third is to prepare. Research your topic, plan an outline, rehearse it. And then, on the day of the actual talk, go with the spirit. No matter how much you prepare, you never know who will be in your audience, and you are talking to real, actual souls, not a faceless mass of bodies. (Yeee. That's a gruesome image, talking a faceless mass.) There have been many times when I've planned multiple talks, including memorizing three talks from the Master, only to scrap them all at the last moment. Of course, if you don't prepare, then you're just not ready. The tool, so to speak, has not been prepared for the task. So I feel that planning and preparation is essential, even if what you prepared is not used in the final talk.

Now, those are all things that I already knew ahead of time.

One thing that I didn't consciously know was how important humility is. I mean, I guess I did, in the abstract, but Marielle was chatting with people afterwards and made this observation. She said that in most of my previous talks I had not talked about how it was just "my own opinion", but she noticed that writing this blog and regularly making that disclaimer seemed to carry over. There were a number of times when I said that in my presentation. And the reaction? Quite interesting. It seems that this very honest disclaimer helped people lower their internal walls. She said that by claiming my talk was only my own opinion, and nothing official, I allowed the audience the opportunity to dispassionately examine what I was saying. They were free to decide for themselves if they agreed or not. Even if they disagreed, they did not feel threatened, and therefore those internal barriers never came up.

She also said that my informality helped people relax. I did not come across as a big shot who was there to tell them something. I came across as just a regular guy who had an idea that he was asked to share. And you know what? That's all I am. It's kind of cool that it came across.

One thing that I consciously did was embed quotes in my talk. I would sometimes say, "Baha'u'llah said", or something similar, followed by a quote. But more often I would paraphrase a quote in my own words. After all, not everyone like being quoted at. Oh, and an example of this would be like using that first quote in the Ruhi Books. You know, the one that begins, "The betterment of the world can be accomplished..." Instead of using that quote, I think I said something like, "When you do good deeds, pure deeds, and act in a commendable way, you help make the world a better place."

Finally, I answered questions people asked. And while I didn't claim to have "the" answer, I answered them to the best of my ability. Of course, this often began with a moment of silence while I said my favorite prayer for this sort of occasion quietly in my own heart: "Oh God, HELP!"

For example, one person said, "For Baha'is, hope comes from the promise of the Golden Age of Baha'u'llah. Can you tell us when this will happen?"

My immediate thought was to say, "No, I can't", and move on to another question.

Instead, I realized that this would be a dis-service to the one who asked. So I said my favorite prayer (see above).

"That's a very interesting question", I began. "It is the same question as asking about the Lord's prayer 'Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven'. I think they are describing the same thing."

This was when I turned to Shoghi and asked him how old he was. "8 years-old, Papa."

I then turned back to the man who asked the question and asked him, "When will Shoghi turn into an adult? What is the exact day? How old will he be? In truth, there is no exact time. It is a process that occurs over a length of time. For now, we don't need to be concerned about when it will occur as much as what we can do to help bring it about."

That, to me, was the answer to my prayer, for there is no way that I would have come up with an answer to that question on my own.

So there it is. Just a few things I learned from giving a public talk and reflecting on it. I hope it was useful.

Is there anything you have found that helps make talks more effective?

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