Public Speaking and Private Emotions

The staff of my NGO asked me to provide training on public speaking, so I put together a four-part course for them. I included sections on “speaking style” – body, voice, eye contact, hand gestures – and “speaking substance” – how to structure the content of a presentation. In session III we added PowerPoint.

For sessions II and IV, each member of the staff (and I) delivered short presentations on the topic of her choice. For the first homework assignment, we gave speeches without any visual aids, and for the second we used PowerPoint. Not only did these homework assignments provide great public speaking practice opportunities for everyone, myself included, but they also created a very safe forum to discuss deeply emotional topics. At first I wasn’t sure whether I should feel guilty that three out of the six staff members ended up in tears at various points during our practice sessions. But whenever we hit an emotional hurdle in a speech, the speakers showed great composure – they stopped, took a few deep breaths and maybe a drink of water, and then continued. After each of these talks, we were able to frankly discuss what had happened with the group, and I told them how impressed I was that they were brave enough to discuss such personal topics in front of an audience. None of the later presenters were deterred by the tears of her predecessors – on the contrary, the presentations got more personal as the week progressed.

One presenter spoke about her experience giving training in conflict areas inside Burma. She had to travel through the jungle by foot with a few members of an ethnic minority army for a month, watching Burmese Army movements carefully, and often rising in the middle of the night to retreat to safer cover. One member of their party stepped on a land mine and lost his leg. My colleague’s friend dressed the wound, but he was in great pain and they heard him crying all night.

Another presenter gave a talk entitled “Why My Life in Burma was So Hard,” in which she told us about leaving her family at the age of eight to move to a city and continue her education. While there, she performed domestic work for a family in exchange for room and board. When the head of the household died she had to leave, living with other families and in monasteries over a period of 10 years until she was finally so sick and malnutritioned that she was forced to quit school and move back home. Her father has been in Bangkok as a migrant worker since shortly after she initially left for school and she hasn’t seen him since.

One of the joint secretaries of our organization spoke about the needs of poor and orphaned children in the state where she grew up, citing statistics and sharing photos to illustrate her points. She made an impassioned pitch for a free primary school for children in the capital city, and presented her implementation plan for the project.

Not all of the presentations were serious. One junior staff member (who is 19 years old!) gave a presentation entitled, “Why Have All of My Boyfriends Left Me?” My PowerPoint homework assignment was about why I think my organization should have a website (we are planning to build one starting later this week, after I give a short Web Training course).

Through these sessions I learned more about my staff and their backgrounds, and I felt that all of us became closer as a result. So it was certainly a valuable experience for me, and they’ve asked me to give them a “training of trainers” (TOT) course next week, so they can teach public speaking to their students and interns as well.

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