Be a voice, not an echo.
Being the eldest of 2 and living far away from cousins and relatives, I grew up having to work most things out for myself. I was a self-conscious child for as long as I can remember. As a small child, I lost my gold stud earring from my right ear and had to go to school with just the left one. I was a 5 year old who decided it was all too embarrassing to get around with this disruption of symmetry so I spent the day in kindergarten with my hand over my ear.
Being right-handed, when it was time to write something, I would reach across and hold my right ear with my left hand, trying to act as casual as possible while my little arm shivered in exhaustion.
I was very self-aware from a young age and yearned to fit in. I wanted just the right balance of respect and friendship – no excessive attention and no hurtful dessertion.
I didn’t obsess over chocolate but my weakness was reading. I loved it. My mother took me to the local library as often as she could and no less than once a week.
Growing up, my father hated that I preferred fiction over facts. He insisted that at least one book that I borrowed each week be non-fiction because according to him, that was the only type of literature worth reading. When I would announce to my parents that I was bored, my father would hand me a volume of the encyclopedia we rescued from a local trash and treasure. When I ran of things to read, I would literally read the dictionary. Aardvark…
In the last few years of primary school, my teacher asked me to join the school debating team. I liked being selected for things. I wouldn’t call myself an over-achiever but I was always good at most things, never excellent in any one special area. I took the opportunity and set about creating arguments for topics and writing points down on cue cards and practicing in front of mirrors. I loved being convincing. At home, mum and dad were the judge and jury and I was raised with a strict routine of homework, prayer and an early bed time coupled with weekly outings and holidays. I always toyed with the notion of being able to argue my way with my parents but if I ever did try, I never won.
Debating opened up a whole new way of expressing myself and challenging my little mind to fight the adrenalin and nerves I got when speaking to a group. I even won a few times and felt very proud of that. I learned that the bigger the challenge, the more the nerves. I also learned that the more the nerves, the better the thrill. I became addicted to the adrenalin and the buzz of speaking before an audience. I went from debating other class mates to debating against other schools and speaking in front of local councillors at the district town hall.
Debating taught me to think on my feet and to really listen to what people are saying during an argument. Public speaking went hand in hand with the debating and I took every opportunity I could to address large groups of people on my own. In year 5, I was in a composite class with year 6 and often got to participate in things that they would do in their final year of primary school. We were studying the Australian gold rush era and the year 6 students were to put on a musical theatrical performance based on this part of history at the end of the year. The year 5 students watched the year 6 students audition for the acting roles which included singing. I watched as boy after girl after boy mounted the stage and struggled to get through the audition lines and songs due to lack of confidence or poor talent.
A decision was made by the teachers that it was probably a good idea to let the 5th graders audition too as they hadn’t found a suitable actor for the leading role who happened to be male. I thought for a while about whether or not I was prepared to not only speak and act in front of hundreds of my peers and their parents as well as teachers at the end of year performance, but also sing.
I don’t remember how I convinced myself to try but I do remember being completely confused when it was my name that was announced as having the lead role in the year 6 play.
I pushed through the awkward early teenage years with many of the same struggles teenagers have experienced over the generations. I hated things about my appearance and made up pretend sisters living in other countries and dreamt about owning all the clothes and gadgets in the world. I started to really enjoy playing sport and remember being called a tall poppy by my year 7 physical education teacher. I had my friends and as time went by we developed a sisterhood that I never had inside my home. I found a level of comfort with my friends that I had never been able to have until I was half way through high school. My group of friends was popular but also some of most intelligent students in the year. Uncommon it was that girls would compete with their grades and exams and not with boys and clothes. This group of girls was confident in their skin.
Of course it was a right of passage that I eventually passed through and came out the other end with a better understanding of who I was and what I was good at. I still bore remnants of the 5 year old who was worried about a missing earring but I would squash it knowing that I had to use my time, talents and energy more effectively.
During university I took every opportunity I could to speak publicly, chairing community events, giving talks about religion and society and taking on jobs which involved using emotional intelligence to convince an audience of what I wanted from them (which they also call sales.)
I’m often asked about how I learned to speak in front of large audiences and seem so very composed. I am self taught, it is not a natural talent, my nature is to be reserved and self conscious. It also wasn’t that I had taken a toastmasters course nor studied law, nor was I the daughter of a politician. I drowned myself in text and devoured every piece of reading material I could get my hands on growing up. I pushed myself through self conscious and awkward years as a child and teenager by standing before the world and telling them what I had to say.
The eloquence you can achieve through building your vocabulary by reading coupled with taking the opportunity, however small, to address groups of people is a trusty tool I’ve called upon many times and will do so for as long as I have the strength.