I like to win. I like to deliver spectacular presentations. I recently volunteered to present a speech about passion to a group of Toastmasters. I prepared a striking PowerPoint presentation to accompany my exquisitely timed talk. However, I felt an insatiable desire to veer off course to acknowledge individuals in the room walking examples of their personal beliefs. They walked their talk. They are role models.
The young woman who spoke before me discussed her paralyzing fear of public speaking. Although she possessed a lovely speaking voice and wore the confidence of a successful business woman, she admitted she was extremely shy as a small child because she was a stutterer. She joined Toastmasters to release her childhood fears two years ago.
Michael listened intently while Shelly spoke. He was a tall, quiet man who worked in the technology department in the building where the group met each week. Three months ago, he approached the podium and silently stared at the group. After several attempts to speak, Michael abruptly announced he had a speech impediment. He explained that stuttering is characterized by disruptions in sound as one attempts to vocalize words. He described the physical pain he sometimes experienced when words lodged in his throat. It was the most courageous speech I ever heard.
After the meeting, I approached Michael and requested permission to ask a few questions. He was eager to provide answers and was glad I had questions to ask.
“Do you ever forget what you wanted to say when words finally come out of your mouth?” I inquired.
“Yeah,” he laughed, “but sometimes I forget what I’m saying, anyway.”
“I understand,” I answered.
Michael stopped laughing.
“How could you possibly understand?” he asked.
One morning in 2004, a speeding vehicle slammed into the side of my car as I passed through an intersection. My car was thrust into someone’s front yard and I quickly maneuvered the vehicle around several large trees. The car stopped inches from the brick of the owner’s home. After an accident report was filed with the police, I asked a friend to pick me up and drop me off at the school where I worked.
In the days that followed, I found it increasingly difficult to walk. My speech slurred. I experienced short-term memory loss. Four days later, the entire left side of my body went limp. I could not move my left arm or leg. I called “911” and was rushed to the emergency room. I had a concussion. I listened to the doctor use words like “brain injury,” but it felt like he was talking about someone else.
My balance and speech gradually returned in the months that followed. Short-term memory loss terrified me. My career was built upon a finely honed ability to speak effectively in front of others. I was petrified I would never be able to address an audience again. How could I continue to motivate others if I could not remember conversations? Or refer to important bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation? Or a recall a memorized script?
I developed several weak speaking crutches. I believed if I spoke very quickly, I might be more apt to remember what I was talking about by the time I reached the end of a sentence. I avoided eye contact. I often covered my mouth with my hand when I spoke. I withdrew from public speaking and accepted more responsibilities as a researcher and data analyst. It felt safe. And sterile.
I was thrust back into the speaking arena again when I left the school district where I worked as an instructional coach. I wanted to build a career as a writer and professional speaker. I was not afraid of speaking in front of people. I was afraid of forgetting in front of people. I addressed large audiences at local workshops and national conferences for years. Until 2004. I did not know if I could do it again.
“Oh, you get it, Julie. You understand,” Michael laughed. “You’re a powerful speaker. You have a powerful story that can inspire others.”
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage,” explained Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly. “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” She describes the place of embracing our fear and owning our power as “stepping into the arena.” Scripture calls it “holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). I call it miraculous.
As I looked at my audience and considered my options, I realized the first thing I needed to do to reengage in the arena would be to let go of my PowerPoint security blanket. I also realized if I veered off course to acknowledge the role models in the room, my speech may run longer than the prescribed time allowed. I veered, anyway. I dared greatly.
I explained that pursuit of our passions can be a frightening experience. We are prisoners of fear as long as we insist on continuing the journey alone. We are surrounded by role models who cheer us forward by their example.
I shared my experiences with short-term memory loss. Yes, I am a brain injury survivor. But, more importantly, I am a natural teacher … a powerful speaker … and, most importantly, a storyteller. Good storytellers do not run from their own stories; they lean into and open their hearts to the experience … and, as a result, invite others to embrace their own stories. I acknowledged Shelly who bravely faced her own fears and shared her story. And I called attention to my personal role model who showed me how to step into the arena with courage: Michael.
I was disqualified from the competition because my speech exceeded the allotted time limit. And it didn’t matter.
At the end of meeting, Michael approached me.
“Your hands were shaking,” he observed.
“I’m proud of you,” he added.
Michael’s kind acknowledgement was better than any award.
Who are your role models?