Commentary: Public speaking revelations

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Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from a speech Becca Baligave at Brattlemasters last week on the occasion of the Toastmasters Club's 10th anniversary.

By Becca Balint

This year I fell deeply in love with my dear friend, the craft of public speaking. This surprised me; I thought I already appreciated its many mysteries and charms. But, until this year, I hadn't given my heart away. I wasn't yet truly open to all that this relationship had to offer.

A photographer may say, "make love to the camera," to get a model to connect emotionally with an unknown, unseen audience. Just so, the speechwriter must hold the audience in her mind while she crafts the speech. Adore your audience, public speaking taught me. Honor them. What is a speech but a search for shared meaning and understanding? Each speaking engagement allows us opportunities to create a powerful moment, to build shared memories, if we are courageous enough to take them. Each audience member brings a remarkable history: stories, hopes, and disappointments.

It's a tremendous honor to stand before an audience. It can be deeply profound, almost sacred. As writers and speakers we should strive to create a space for gratitude, for acknowledgement or for wonder. Doing so reveals affection for the group.

I've also learned that to truly fall in love with public speaking, I must be willing to be more vulnerable, to answer the unasked question. Several weeks ago, I spoke at a women's networking luncheon at a huge conference in Burlington. The organizer said she wanted me to speak about proposed legislation in the Senate that related to renewable energy. I sensed intuitively that the audience needed to hear something quite different. I thought about the political situation we're in, and how — after making so many strides towards equality — we seem to be stalled. I thought about how lonely, how very lonely, it can be when you are the only woman at a firm. Or the only person of color. Or the only immigrant. There's a heavy burden that comes with that position.

I thought of times when I was "the only one." This grounded me in a better understanding of my audience. As I thought carefully about the women in the hall and their work situations and feelings, I knew I had to acknowledge the importance of their work. And I wanted them to support each other in that work. So, I delivered the speech I thought they needed and not the one the organizer asked for. It was a risk. I spoke from the heart. It could have fallen horribly flat. But it didn't.

Afterwards, a woman said to me: "You said what we were all thinking. It was like you could see the thoughts swirling above our heads." It was wonderful to hear that.

We must honor our audiences and be willing to be vulnerable. To do so thoroughly, we must also ask, "What impact do I want to have on my audience?" We all have impact, each day, every day. In hundreds of interactions: a smile, a scowl of impatience, a spontaneous laugh. We speak our minds or choose to remain silent. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you will affect the people around you today — in the way you carry yourself, in how you address acquaintances and strangers.

Public speaking is truly a craft that can be honed. It can move and inspire, call people to action, and assuage grief and fear. Those of us who still believe in the power of the spoken word must take the time to ask ourselves: What impact do I want to have? And then trust yourself and get encouragement from each other to put that into practice.

I promise you, it will be the beginning of a fabulous love affair.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as the Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont State House. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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