Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Painful, Horrible, Awful and Wonderful Process of Speech Writing and Giving

"One Foot on the Path", oil on 32x48" panel, hanging at the Governor's Mansion in Olympia for one year along with eleven more of my paintings

Writing a good speech is second to none on the pain scale except the actual giving of the speech. You want it to be no less than great so right there you’re already in trouble. After seeing numerous Ted Talks, we all know what 22 minutes looks like and how good it looks when the giver isn’t reading from notes, uses inflections in their voice, poses with appropriate physical motions with and amazes us with a fabulously interesting topic.
So I did what everyone does. Well, after I panicked anyway, I looked it up on-line. I looked up how to write a speech, I poured over a scientific analysis on what makes up a great speech, I read about how to practice a speech, and I read and watched some really great speeches. Then I was truly stumped. I don’t have a PhD on studying the brain and then had a stroke so got to give a speech about what that felt like (which is one of the best Ted Talks). I’m not Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, both incredibly fantastic speech writers and great thinkers. I’m not the best artist I know nor have I won incredible prizes for my painting or had to paint holding the brush in my teeth because I don’t have any arms. It’s just me, folks, and I had to write a speech and give in at the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia. The invitations said the artist was “giving a lecture”. That threw me even more. A lecture sounds much more important than just a speech.
So I turned to my friends and relations to discuss what subject would be good for this speech. I knew it had to be on a subject I cared about and knew a lot about. My uncle, who was a judge and has given many speeches told me that what people really want to hear, was simply about my “journey to becoming an artist and leave out politics and religion, kid.” He always calls me kid. I could do that. I certainly knew the subject.
So I wrote and wrote and wrote. I looked up quotes (boy there are a lot of great quotes out there) and filled my speech with everything I could think of that related to art from the beginning of my life to the present day. And after a while, though it was much too long and didn’t exactly flow, I began to see this might work after all. Especially if I tossed out aiming for great.  After much editing and working on  flow, I needed to read it out loud to someone who would tell me truthfully if it was working at all, where the weaknesses were and if it would offend anybody. I was two days away from giving the speech when I realized that I’d better leave out the name of my university since it’s art department wasn’t portrayed in a very flattering manner! Imagine all those alumni in the audience tittering afterwards had I not just called it “my college”.  A dear friend, who had been my teacher when I was at the Gemological Institute of America, and gives talks all the time to large and small groups kindly offered to be my first listener. I am a firm believer in never anything I work on leave the house without another set of eyes on it. Debbie offered great hints and kind words which left me feeling surprisingly confident.
And then you have to practice. Routines work for me so every morning, after my  shower, I placed my speech on top of a tippy small table placed on a chair to imitate a podium and read my speech out to the world through the open sliding doors of the master bedroom. I told the sky how I grew up in a lovely, loving family. The birds squawked when they heard me tell that I created some weird art in college. Over and over and over I said it because I couldn’t imagine that I would ever get this thing memorized. My brain seemed too porous to hold it. Paragraphs ended and I was left wondering what came next.  But the amazing thing was that after I said it a jillion times, it eventually did start to tumble off out of my mouth unbidden. The transitions began to come more naturally and I found I could even adlib a little to help the speech along.
The day to give the speech finally came and though my heart really did hammer like a madman for the first five minutes, I remembered to breath and eventually I actually got the point where I slowed down the pace, relaxed and actually enjoyed the rest of the speech. Who’d have thought? I think the take away for me on this whole speech thing was something I learned from another friend of mine who encourages taking a big project and breaking it into smaller pieces in order to make it seem less overwhelming. At some point, I just told myself to quit complaining and worrying about it and just get on with working on it. Just do it—thank you Nike. I’m not sure I’ll ever willingly take up speech giving as part of my career but if it comes up again,  I’ll know more or less what to do. There’s something quite positive to be said for getting through the terribly, awful and wonderful process of writing and giving a speech.