Sunday, May 4, 2008

Blunders into Blessings

Before someone dragged me to a Toastmasters meeting in 1999 and signed me up for the cure, like most people, I would rather die than speak in public. Mind you, I had been doing it since 1969. People told me I was told I was good at it—a natural. But no one could see or hear my knocking knees behind the podium. They didn’t have a clue about the agony I went through every time I was sentenced to the spotlight.

What is it we’re scared to death of? Blunders. Making a fool of ourselves. Looking stupid in public.

Now as fate would have it, our own US President makes so many speech blunders, he inspired a segment on the
Late Show with David Letterman called Great Moments in Presidential Speeches. Love him, hate him, or anywhere in-between: You’ve got to admit, President Gobbledygook has raised the public speech blunder to an art form. It is an eye roller to hear his latest tongue trips next to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “nothing to fear but fear itself” speech or JFK’s most quotable “ask not what your country can do for you.” Unfortunately, our current President’s boo-boos are heard ‘round the world.

None of us is leader of the free world, of course, but our cheeks still burn over our public mistakes and speech mishaps. I’ve come to realize that we have a choice in how we view flub-ups. We can see them as humiliating, learning experiences, and/or amusing, depending how we look at them.

I, for one, have gone home from more than one meeting mortally embarrassed for days over some mistake I made in front of the group. What does that say about me?

First, I take myself way too seriously and have lost my sense humor, at least temporarily. Everyone else was having a big belly laugh. Why not join the fun? Second, I expect too much of myself, namely perfection, which is unattainable. Third, and most importantly, I’ve allowed a gaffe to become divisive in my mind instead of cohesive.

Blunders can join people together in a fraternity of laughter and a sense of belonging to the same club of human foibles. You’ve probably seen good speakers do this hundreds of times. You’ll forgive the speaker anything, because you’ve been there. Best of all, the speaker just proved her humanity to you.

We’re fortunate in Toastmasters, and in the places most of us would have occasion to speak, because we’re likely to encounter friendly audiences. But a friendly audience is vastly in the eye of the beholder. Anticipate acceptance, and you’ve got it. Expect rejection? You’ll see it everywhere, whether or not it’s actually there.
If there’s a single commandment of public speaking, it isn’t Thou shalt not goof. Rather, it is Thou shalt not bore thy audience. I can imagine the Distinguished Toastmaster in the Sky delivering this one-liner on a stone tablet with a large clap of thunder.

Blunders are blessings because they can turn a speech, whether lukewarm or dazzling, into a conspiracy of fun and sharing. To grow is to take risks and accept that the price of admission is making mistakes.

Revel in your errors, learn from them and most of all, know them for the blessing they are. We are so melodramatic. Better to be laughable. (Laugh able.)

Public mistakes are not tombstones; they are touchstones of our shared humanity and stepping-stones to our growth as speakers.

Photo: My mom never had any trouble laughing at herself, something I’m still trying to learn from her.

No comments: