My Politically Incorrect Guide to Confident Public Speaking (and Life)


When You Don’t Have A Prayer

They didn’t help.

Prayer and sound doctrine and even more prayer weren’t working.

I was sitting at the front of the church, dreading the duty I had signed up for, this occasion being just a few years ago.

I had come to expect prayer and right-thinking would allow God to take care of any personal problem, as long as I was sincere.

I was scared to death, and I had volunteered to read a read “Prayers of the People,” a sort of call-and-response type of prayer, albeit a rather reserved and formatted call-and-response favored by white people and Anglophiles.

I had to read the prayers from the center of the aisle in the church. When I’m that scared, I can’t get the force of breath to speak loudly. I was standing in a large sanctuary with high ceilings. Later, an elderly friend would complain he couldn’t hear me during the prayers. I’m sure he wasn’t the only one.

I remember being terrified at the front of the church on more than one occasion. In robes, with my throat nearly collapsed from fear, I pushed a near-whisper into the microphone through my part of a special series of readings. For a split second, I thought I was going to run out of the sanctuary (I probably would have tripped on the robe). The next man who came forward boomed his voice into the microphone, clear and confident, and in the moment, it certainly felt like a backhanded comment on my delivery.

Statistically speaking, humans are more afraid of public speaking than death or spiders. Pause on that for a sec. That’s pretty crazy. I’m no fan of spiders. “Let this tarantula crawl across your arm, or speak to this auditorium of 2,000 people.” I’ll decide as soon as you loan me your pistol; I’ll just need one bullet.

Whatever contrary impression I might give these days, I was having a very difficult time back then admitting to myself I would have to find something other than prayer and fine-tuned beliefs to tackle my problem.

That seemed like the end of faith itself.

Socially scary as well as metaphysically scary.

To this day, I don’t know what to make of the success of self-initiated action instead of faith, even though prayer and theologically good thoughts didn’t work and didn’t work some more. I didn’t “wait upon the Lord.” I failed at faith.

In the months that followed those church readings and prayers, I didn’t get better. I got much worse. The problem was expanding, and seemed to be going deeper.

Eventually, I bought When Panic Attacks by Dr. David Burns. I had benefited from Burns’ Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy in the past because it taught me how to think about my feelings. Burns is one of the pioneers in cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Unfortunately, years ago, I had feared something about Feeling Good was at odds with my Christian faith, like the book wasn’t ultimately accurate, just a temporary crutch until I got my faith right enough to be whole and healed. Worse yet, I was a terribly A.D.D. and slow reader, so getting through what I attempted to read was a challenge. I could only get so much of the good method of thinking into my head.

But in my more recent struggles, I had one basic complaint about When Panic Attacks, related strictly to that particular moment in my life: the book was, largely, a workbook. I had used Burns’ writing and worksheet techniques before with Feeling Good, and they were useful. So I still appreciate Burns’ methods, and for whatever my opinion is worth, I highly recommend them.

At the particular moment, however, I felt like I really needed to understand things in a broader context. So the idea of doing worksheets and writing down and sorting through momentary problems—none of that appealed to me at the time. I needed something more foundational. I needed more of an integrated worldview, not a technique for managing flares of panic and anxiety.

I had brought When Panic Attacks with me to London. My in-laws were working over there for about three years, and they generously invited us over. (I secretly suspect their granddaughters are more interesting than their son-in-law.) I was in a small downstairs bedroom in their two-level rented flat (not far from Waterloo Station) when I noticed one of the blurbs on the back of When Panic Attacks, a blurb by Dr. Albert Ellis, who was, as the back cover said, author of A Guide to Rational Living.

Rational living — that sounded more like a worldview.

The Books That Saved Me From Myself

A Guide to Rational Living is not a philosophical counterpoint to a religious worldview. It’s not about rationalism versus faith.

A better definition of this kind of rational living comes from Margaret R. Graver, who once told me in an interview about her book, Stoicism and Emotion:

“The fact that human beings respond with fear and sadness to what we see as bad, and with desire and delight to what we see as good, is just part of our nature, imparted to us by the intelligent design of the universe. So there’s nothing wrong with that. But those responses still need to be examined in light of a correct understanding of what kinds of things are truly good or bad for a person. The essential ethical principle of Stoic thought is that only those things that are under a person’s own control are properly considered good or bad for that person.”

We’re talking about that kind of rational living.

Understand what you can control. Think about how you can control those things. Realize how pointless it is to attempt control over others’ perceptions and thoughts. Don’t worry about the rest.

After my visit to London, I ordered and began reading A Guide to Rational Living by Ellis while also reading Of Human Freedom, a Penguin Great Ideas edition of works by the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus.

The two books complemented each other spectacularly, brilliantly, near-perfectly.

Oddly enough, while Ellis walked me through his psychological philosophy with examples for every kind of scenario, Epictetus illustrated the irrationality of a musician who is terrified of performing in front of an audience.

So I was hearing from an ancient philosopher and a contemporary psychologist, both of whom were attacking the same issues from different angles.

Meanwhile, I had also begun reading Roger Ailes’ book, You Are the Message.

Combine a corny, self-help title with the news media’s most controversial personality, and you’ve got the recipe for an instant turn-off, at least among most of the people I know.

In which case, I’m both sorry and happy to say: It’s a brilliant book.

You Are the Message was the third leg of the stool.

Maybe you have to chalk Ailes’ magic up to the same dark forces he summoned to make Fox News a financial and ratings success story.

Either way, here’s his magic: He made me feel genuinely more confident. I don’t even know how he did it. That’s why I’m talking magic here.

With the magic, he also brought reasonable, graspable techniques and insights.

And like any good book, he opened my eyes to elements I can research on my own. For example, last year, I listened to a podcast—possibly one by Scientific American (if memory serves), maybe “30-Second Mind” — about research on the speed of one’s speech and how that relates to persuasion. That’s just one of the things Ailes’ book prepared me to be aware of; he put the topic on my radar.

Politically Incorrect?

I’ve said two things here that will anger cultural warriors of two distinct stripes.

  1. Prayer didn’t help with emotional matters.
  2. Fox News mastermind Roger Ailes wrote a great book.

But instead of getting bent out of shape about either politically incorrect statement, just read those three books.

Go to the library and hide the Ailes book behind the latest edition of Southern Living if your friends are so ideologically thin-skinned as to shun you Puritan-style for what you read.

Read those three books, and you stand a good chance of becoming a confident public speaker with a confidence that’s thorough—philosophically, psychologically, and technically.

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