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Recovering From the Wordless Wilderness

I was always terrified of public speaking, yet drawn to it was as well.  While I debated through my high school years, I was a first speaker in the debating team which meant I knew exactly what I was going to say. 

If I had to give some rebuttal I was beside myself with nerves; unscripted speaking was not for me. I needed to be on solid ground, to know exactly what I was going to make, to have memorised my speech, to have palm note prompts I could glance at so I could recite what I had rehearsed.  And then I would sweat and stress and feel nervous and afraid until it was over.  

The next phase of my learning was law school.  My confidence has always been a crazy mixture of egg like fragility and hard as rock determination, but law put me on very shaky ground and my enthusiasm quickly left me as I got answers wrong and was scorned by lecturers.  So I spent five years in class terrified to comment, ask a question or contribute. 

In second year law I agreed to be a representative on the Law faculty, and for the next four years I was completely intimidated by an entire room of law lecturers.  Each meeting I would sit mute, terrified I might be called onto speak, at the same time with a throat full of words. 

There is something deeply unsatisfying and disappointing about sitting on the edge of speech, having something to say, really wanting to participate, and yet not doing it.  I would always come away with renewed commitment to do better next time, but next time would roll around and again the gates of confidence would close and I would be trapped with my unspoken words.  

Slowly I challenged myself to speak what felt like the unspeakable, and inevitably I felt like a failure, but bit by bit I began to improve.

Then I got a casual job as a community presenter with the Country Fire Authority, both before Black Saturday in 2009 and in the weeks and months afterwards.  The crowds were enormous afterwards, but by then I had been doing the spiel for a while, knew it very well, had developed my own way of making the material engaging for me and so hopefully for the audience;  I was really comfortable speaking on my feet for an hour.

So like most skills, storytelling performance can’t be learned in a vacuum, from a book, website or video.  It must be embodied, experienced, and practiced; it needs reflection and review, feedback and frequency.  It can be taught, coached and supported, indeed this is needed to avoid my experience of years in the silent wilderness.  So if you want to begin to tell, a workshop is a great place to start. 

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