Friday, 25 April 2014

Speak Up

They say that, ‘we teach what we need to learn’. As a recovering shy person, shyness being one of many traits that have no doubt blocked me from achieving, it was no accident that I ended up in a speaking club one night with a good friend. 

I got the idea from Meryl Runion, ‘Speak Strong’whose book, 'Power Phrases', I discovered on a training at work. I was inspired and decided to visit my local Toastmasters group. Long story short, I worked on my own 'public' speaking and have gone on to train thousands of adults and teenagers, passing on simple tools and ideas. Tools that can help all of us overcome the psychological and practical challenges of being ourselves in front of others. Whether it is speaking up in meetings or standing up at a family wedding, we all have important stuff we can say, if we are willing. 

© Maggie Sawkins 2014 All Rights Reserved
My work on Etsy
It is a thing of beauty to see a person who is painfully conscious that every time they walk up to speak they are very hot, flushed and mind fretting. Then to witness by the end of a simple but nonetheless effortful, day - they are capable of standing and speaking without notes, on a subject close to their heart.  All because a few things have been put in place, with some encouragement from me, that now make it manageable.
I’ve done it myself: I’ve opened events and spoken in front of large groups. I’ve trained and spoken to delegates on hundreds of courses. I've been a teacher of teenagers in Tottenham and trained my fellow trainers. Yet when the moment comes when I need to put myself on the line - not as a trainer or professional of any kind - but just as myself, that moment is the hardest test of all. For all of us. The one where the ego comes in and sets us up by bragging a bit about what we do. Or the opposite: the shame-based voice that shuts us up and acts as the brake that will stop us from speaking and saying what actually might be (as I know) a very valuable thing to air. 

Case in point: I was an audience member for Radio 4’s Four Thought last week. I heard thought-provoking and heartfelt speeches. First from Benet Brandreth, on a revolutionary proposal for a ‘third house’ of 600 citizens, chosen by lottery to make decisions for the country. Then Phillipa Perry, on how our stories can define us, acting as lenses through which we interpret the world. 

But it was the third speaker that got me in the gut. Rebecca Mott spoke of her experience and subsequent exit from the violence, unnamed torture and slavery of being prostituted at 14. I felt the stillness and quiet horror in the room as she surely broke new ground, speaking about this stuff on Radio 4. And alongside the subsequent fourteen years of living hell, R4 had been her comfort and consistent support. It had reassured her. 

Then after her talk, the questions. The first was a simplistic one about equality and offered no acknowledgment to Rebecca. I knew what we had witnessed had taken courage and integrity and felt to me, radical. 

Too late, I tentatively put up half a hand but the session was wrapped up. So I didn’t speak. Too late to say it in the room, I did go and talk to her in person. And I realise I’d allowed my own fear of ‘what will they think?’ or ‘I’m not as bright as all these intellectuals…’ and ‘but he’s really well known…’, to block me. I stayed silent when I was inching towards saying something valuable. I judged at the time, that maybe it was ‘better to stay quiet’. That my thing was not vital. As the intensity of the experience stayed with me, when I got home, I made a voice recording what I had wanted to say at the time. 

Here is the transcript: "…I felt like was in a room where you (Rebecca) are breaking new ground talking about this in public, on Radio 4, and in fact it was spellbinding to listen to you and we were all very still I noticed at one point.

And - what I wanted to say was that no doubt there are people listening to this - perhaps in the room and definitely at home, who have experience that relates to what you are saying and maybe they haven’t been violent, maybe they haven’t been creating torture for someone, but they have and they do, continue to maintain this belief in this arty-fairytale or whatever it is that things (prostitution) are dressed up with… 

I know there is this argument about choice… but I don’t see any or hear any teenagers, having worked with a lot of them, wanting to go into prostitution as a career… and I don’t think its something people go in their mid-life-crisis career changes either… ‘I think I’ve missed my calling, I’m going to be a prostitute after all and exploit myself that way’…  

I can’t even begin to imagine what would take somebody to do it… so  almost feels like a spurious point really… I want to say sorry, that I haven’t spoken up sooner… and didn’t get heard in the room because the first question you had about 'don’t things need to be fairer' (for women and men) and you answered with ‘we don’t wait’ (for black and white to be equal before we abolish slavery) and of course we don’t wait. I wish that I had spoken up just to acknowledge you and thank you for your courage - in saying something so cogently about what is actually, for me, a frightening truth that is mostly hidden and you brought it out of the shadows…  and I hope that people will stop and think… and that we can make some of the changes that you are proposing. Thank you.”

So learning from my own challenges and willingness to be seen and heard: better late than never at all. Never too late to take risks. 'Do something that scares you every day', said Eleanor Roosevelt. I’ve now sent it to the producer of Four Thought: better to speak up and speak out in whatever form, than to stay hidden. 

I know that so many of us have wonderful messages which the world needs. ‘It’s never too late to be what you might have been’, George Eliot. We need to hear all voices. Thanks to all those that speak up. Thanks Rebecca.