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June 2019
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2004-07-06 Public Speaking

Not long ago I was asked to speak to a North Dublin Adult Education Creative Writing Class, on being a journalist. I know, stop smirking, that was my reaction too! Frightened of being found out and charged with fraud, I tried to put it off for as long as I possibly could.


I am reasonably comfortable by now getting up in front of a crowd of thousands to sing, but like most people, public speaking still freaks me out a little. When my tenor colleague got married, one of the other tenors was Best Man and the other one sang at the Wedding Mass. I was given the honour of being Matthews Best Man for the day and had lots of fun at the reception being mock-bitchy about tenor tuning under pressure, while making fun of the famous tenor ego. But even on that day, I ended up singing the second half of my Best Man speech! A tenor always needs his standing ovation.


Many people would rather watch Youre a Star or Celebrity Farm repeats than stand up in front of a crowd of people to speak. Despite having taught in a secondary school for four years, when I found myself in that Dublin classroom contracted to talk for an hour on my journalistic career I had, of course, to approach the topic from a different angle. I am not a real journalist, I have no journalistic training, but I do know that to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail, and so I went there with a structure in my head as to what I wanted to talk about, armed with bullet points on a small card, which was never far away.

I wanted what I had to say to sound natural, but within a devised structure, also making sure my audience would not be conscious of any technique as such. I wanted to deliver my speech as though I was talking to a friend, and where possible, to make specific references to the audience as individuals. I did not want to be one of those people who bombarded the listeners with academic complexity and jargon, or who talked about the glories of my career  Thats enough about me, Class. Now, what do you think of me?.

I felt it important to allow my sense of humour to shine through, without losing my listeners as I rambled off on surreal tangents or into the realm of black, tasteless or un-PC humour. I did not want to be dependent on props of any kind, to talk in clichés, or to use empty words such as basically you know at the end of the day in actual fact it goes without saying&&.. And I certainly had no intention of opening the evening with unaccustomed as I am to public speaking&&..


I did not know my audience, and so, my talk had to be suitable (ie. not offensive) to a wide cross-section, it needed to be relatively simple, direct, precise and to the point, and I wanted it to have poise, to be balanced and rhythmical. I tried as far as possible to speak slowly and clearly, still allowing the hour to flow, without repeating myself too much, I say, without repeating myself too much. Oops, guess whos a Corrie fan?


Most of all I wanted to be myself, and to act natural, but again within a disciplined structure, without becoming over-aware of any of my mannerisms or body language which may have detracted from what I had to say. I tried to make my hour-long talk focussed, and to have one real central message that people might take away with them.


As part of the overall structure I wanted to grab my audiences attention at the outset, possibly with the aid of humour or by summarising the main idea, and then return to that opening thought right at the end.


Grammar has rules which ought to be adhered to as far as possible. Style has no rules as such, but as with all art-forms, when speaking in public  practice makes perfect. Style only comes with age.