Recently I was chosen for a speaking engagement that I considered to be a big deal. I was honored to be chosen and, in some ways, even questioned how and why my name came up. Nonetheless, I happily accepted and prepared as best I could.
At this point in my life, public speaking does not frighten me, in fact, I do it often. I do recognize that I am a work in progress; however, this does not create hesitance or fear. The thing is, my path to becoming a public speaker started with a defining moment of failure and embarrassment.
MY MOMENT OF FAILURE AND EMBARRASSMENT – THE POETRY CONTEST
At 10 years old, I took part in a poetry competition for primary school. I chose a very well-known local poem (“Bahamian Bus Ride” by Michael Pintard), which in hindsight, was probably not the best decision. A video clip of the author reciting this same poem played on television just about every night. Objectively speaking, I was not particularly expressive and spoke very rapidly. It didn’t help that in the preparation period, I received mostly positive feedback, not so much because of my delivery but because of the popularity of the poem.
The day of the competition arrives, and I being extremely nervous, spit out the poem with no emotion, and with all the fear and speed in the world. Truth be told, it wasn’t far from how I had been rehearsing it beforehand. Needless to say, I did not progress to the next round. Even worse, one of the judges singled me out and stated demonstratively that I was the example of what NOT to do. He highlighted my lack of emotion and how difficult I was to understand because of how quickly I spoke. He pointed out that choice of poem was not a good choice because it was so popular that I would always be competing with the original. This dressing down lasted for about 5 minutes but felt like it lasted days. The thing that many people fear about public speaking happened to me in that moment at 10 years old.
THE VALUE IN MY FAILURE
This moment hurt – a lot. But in the years immediately following that moment, I was able to attempt different things with varying degrees of success. The fear of failure, however, did not impact my decisions to try. In my mind, the worst thing that could have happened, already happened. Essentially, that moment gave me a toughness I would not have had if the moment never happened.
But also, in a practical sense, that moment also forced me to improve how I spoke in public settings. While the judge’s message felt brutal in the moment, his point was valid. I had to learn how to engage and not bore my audience. I had to learn how to communicate my points effectively. I had to learn to be original. I had to learn to slow down my speaking cadence and be intelligible. I had to learn to seek out constructive feedback and not just feedback that would not injure my ego. By no means did these things come overnight, but the seed was planted for me to improve.
The truth is that the impact of failure really comes down to how we respond to it. As thin-skinned as the young me was, I chose to take that moment and grow. I needed that moment just as many people need failure to improve or to drive them further. How would we know what to improve without failure? How would we know what we’re made of without failure? And though often painful, failure does not have to be a negative experience when it’s all said and done.
THE BEAUTY IN MY FAILURE
The beauty of that moment was that it led to great public speaking moments for me – the best being me delivering the eulogy at my father’s funeral. Out of that moment came a fearlessness that I needed, but it also provided the feedback I needed. I built on that moment and used it to get better, not as an excuse to be discouraged and quit. Out of that moment came growth. The beauty in my moment of failure was that in terms of who I am today as a speaker, it was not the end, but rather the beginning.