About two weeks ago I attended a public speaking training in Antwerp, Belgium which was organized by the wonderful Olivia Schofield from Spectacular Speaking. As I love to do sessions and talks on conferences and one of the trainers was recommended by a friend, I reached out to improve my speaking skills by attending a professional training. What I did not know was, that, as it often happens, it would come to a situation where I instinctively fall into a mode of showing 100% of my vulnerable human side.
We had some great workshops on storytelling, speech structure and much more in the morning with lot’s of high valuable learnings before we came back from lunch for Olivia’s workshop on stage presence.
As so often, the energy-level after lunch is low, so it was for us. So Olivia started to challenged us participants with a new game called Rhetoric which is about public speaking. We played a very dumbed-down version of that game. As it contains two kind of card-sets, one with topics and one with challenge questions, Olivia choosed one of the participants and gave her/him one of the cards. After a short moment of thinking the timebox starts, two minutes for a story in front of the course regarding that topic or challenge question which was handed out. If possible, we can try to integrate something what we’ve learned in the morning.
I assume we were about 45 people in total and we were sitting in a hoof-shaped arrangement of tables in a large room. In the front there was a huge canvas and our stage was a position in the middle of the room. As we did the game as a short warm up exercise to raise energy, chances for me were high not to be asked so I started to relax after the third ‘speaker’ was choosen. – yes, I was nervous as I’ve found out over the morning and during lunch that all participants, except me, are Toastmasters. Toastmasters, the people who meet up every week, bi-weekly or at least once in a month to train public speaking.
If you want to leave your comfort zone, go to an event where people have to communicate and where you are a complete ‘foreigner’ related to all other participants.
In addition, during lunch it turned out, that the training was an upfront conference training. The european conference of Toastmasters in Antwerp started the next morning and was held for the next 3 upcoming days. Wohoo, I was surrounded by ‘professionals’ and as I just did conference talks and sessions in the past, where I normally integrate all participants into a learning process, ‘just’ talking and bringing a message across was completely new to me.
So, what happened during the warm-up exercise after the 3rd speaker left the stage? (And by the way, all speakers had great storys)? Yes, Olivia choosed me and my inner voice started to panic. Why did I panic? I directly felt this feeling of being vulnerable.
Nevertheless I walked on the stage and Olivia said to me, ‘ok Thorsten, prepare to be challenged’ – directly after this words a tiny bit of me relaxed a little bit as it just flashed through my mind, ok, I know a lot stories about challenges, ‘preapre to be challenged’ is a guiding principle in Open Space technology and I’m passionate about Open Space… phew, I have so many challenges from the past years… which story shall I take…’ I was thinking, my mind was self-directed searching for the right story in milliseconds when Olivia said:
‘Ok Thorsten, what makes you cry?’
In the same milliseconds my mind tried to find the right story, my mind realized that in the first place Olivia was talking about the category ‘challenge questions’ and that my question was ‘what makes you cry?’. I felt like an air-balloon on a fair that was just hit by a dart – I slumped down as there was the story of my life flared up. Having no other thought, I started to tell my story:
In december 1979 my sister and I were celebrating the birthday of my father. I was 7 years young and my sister was 10. We had this weekend with my father, like every second weekend in a month, as my parents were just divorced. My sister had prepared a birthday card with the words ‘happy birthday for your 40th anniversary dear dad’. When she gave my dad the card his face turned from smiling into something serious. I do not really remember a detailed face, what I remember is an changing expression of his face. Without interpretation we celebrated his 39th birthday!
Ok, something like this can happen. We were young childs and counting can be a hard challenge for kids. However we’ve celebrated my dad’s birthday with soft-drinks and whippet cookies.
About three months later, it was friday 14th of march 1980 and spring had just shown up. It was one of the awesome first days of spring after a strong and cold winter with lot’s of snow and hard freezes. It was friday afternoon and my sister and I were outside and playing games in the spring-sun with other children from the neighbourhood while we were waiting for our dad to pick us up for our weekend. Normally he showed up around the early afternoon. But this day was different. The sun went down and no signs from my father. So we went home as we get hungry in the early evening.
It must have been around 6:00 pm when we had a bite to eat when the telephone was ringing. My mother stood up and went to the phone. All we heared was a huge, loud and distressing ‘OH MY GOD’ …this scream curdled our blood…
What happened? The phonecall was from the german police, searching for the identity of a dead body they’ve just found in the forest. They assumed it was my dad and somebody had to identify his dead body… The bitter truth was, yes, it was my dad and he died by suicide in march 1980, he was 39 years old.
All my life I was missing a dad, a father and best friend, somebody a young boy can look up to. As a young man, still something was missing. Nobody to ask what’s right or wrong. Too many topics I didn’t want to talk about with my mother or sister. Women, I never wanted to talk about women with my mother or sister in the past. I don’t know why but for me it was just a topic for men.
All my life, 40 was a magic number, like 39, 07 and 10.
Last year I turned 40. An age I thought I’ll never reach as this would mean that I became older than my father was when he died, something what was not possible for me in the past as this w’d mean to be longer on this wonderful planet earth than my father was allowed to. But even if I had hard and very challenging times in my life I turned 40 last year and something wonderful happened. All my life, what made my cry was thinking about my dad, that he left me when I was seven, that he gave up life. When I turned fourty I had to cry because I felt a big release.
That is what makes me cry!
I felt like a samll mice when I finished my story, I did not hear that people applauded. Olivia gave me a hug and I went back to my seat. During my way back to my seat two people stood up and gave me a spontaneous hug and thanked me for sharing my story. One last speaker followed before we started with Olivia’s workshop on stage presence.
In the next coffee break people came to me and thanked me also for sharing my story. Something had changed in the relationship between other participants and me. As in the morning there was somehow just a professional distance in talking with each other, in the afternoon it seemed that a distance was broken and much more personal and ‘intimate’ stories were exchanged. It was a different level of relationship than it was before. I felt the empathy of others for me and that made me feel having trust. Face to face talks changed and were much more open and personal.
What I’d like to say with this post is, even if you feel to be in an threateningly environment, show vulnerability first if you want to make a difference in relationships – if you won’t do it, who will???