One Man’s Guide to Public Speaking – and a Better Life

I now share with you a personal experience that should demonstrate this postulate: Forgetting yourself can be a valuable key to effective public speaking — and to a better life.  (Forgetting yourself does not alter the Self-Acceptance of which I wrote elsewhere; forgetting yourself, as here discussed, deals with the art of overcoming the self-conciousness that causes us to fail at what we’re trying to do.)

Egoism, or being self-centered, according to the philosopher, Spinoza (Jewish-Dutch philosopher, 1632-1677, whose Ethics re-shaped Western philosophy), is a necessary corollary to the instinct of self-preservation. So, understandably, we are egocentric from birth. Indeed, most of us are sufficiently consumed with ourselves that we can neither listen nor communicate effectively without special training.  Until we can put our egos and insecurities aside, we can accomplish very little.

With three generations of lawyers in our family, including a judge, ex-Assistant Attorney General of the U.S., and a past-President of his Bar Association in my family, it was presumed that I would be similarly inclined. Indeed, I began competing in oratorical competitions at age 5 and attended a prep school at which, to my delight, such competitions were held monthly and counted 20% of the grade in English. Through the age of 16, I don’t believe that I ever lost one of those competitions. Then, for reasons I have yet to fully understand (perhaps something related to my then INability to accept myself sufficiently), disaster struck.

When called upon to read aloud one day, for an unknown reason, I incongruously stuttered on one word, and the whole class laughed. This embarrassed me greatly, and, when the laughter died down, I stuttered on the next word, and the next and the next. The class roared, thinking that I was being funny, as I was known as an A+ speaker. My head throbbed violently; my heart exploded against my ribs; and my tongue froze firmly against my teeth. My stuttering continued; the class broke into a paroxysm of laughter, compounding my verbal malaise and my inscrutable embarrassment.  I could not finish the requested-reading.

For nearly 20 years thereafter, I was haunted, no plagued, by the cursed fears and reality of being a stutterer — not much in casual conversation but only when called upon to speak before a group. Oddly, if I could free-form my remarks, I stuttered very little, but, if I had to say specific words, stuttering often struck.  “R’s” and “W’s” were my biggest problem, but even “L’s”, which begin my first and last names, were the most dangerous. I was also a singer and, oddly, when I sung, I had no fear and did not stutter. However, during my first courtroom trial, at age 24, I stuttered so badly that my co-counsel had to take over the case. My career teetered on the precipice of extinction when it was just beginning.  Insufficient self-acceptance had blown me from my speakers’ pedestal, as Best in School, into the gutter of communicators, a verbal cripple.

Initially, I made vocabulary a veritable vocation. I endeavored to learn synonyms for as many words as possible. It greatly enhanced my vocabulary, and my lexicon of synonyms did mitigate my stuttering, but not nearly enough. When I was asked to give a “talk” anywhere, I wrote it out, rehearsed it aloud in front of the mirror, and wrote lots of synonyms into the text. This helped; however, when speaking extemporaneously, and when required to say specific word (such as someone’s name), I panicked and stuttered. Clearly, I needed a much better solution.

Stuttering is not an organic problem; it is psychosomatic, purely mental, but that makes no less a problem for the stutterer.  I sought psychiatric help (the half-dozen sessions that I could afford), as simply “trying to relax”, as many simplistically admonished, did not help. I could only afford a limited number of treatments, but the psychiatrist urged me to study auto-conditioning, i.e. self-hypnosis, which helped  tremendously, and to concentrate more on my message and less on myself. I was told of a minister who was a chronic stutterer, but, when at his pulpit, he spoke flawlessly. The point: When consumed with his message, his tongue was free. I, too, found that, when I could focus totally on my message, I had a free tongue and, in those instances, I reverted to the speaking prowess that I enjoyed in my student days. If I could pretend that I was on a stage, acting, I seemed to do better. Why? I wasn’t myself; I thought of myself as someone else – a better, more deserving person who had an important message to deliver; I “forgot myself”. Unfortunately, sometimes I still  “clutched” and fell into stuttering. I wasn’t reliable.

Over the next several years, I practiced blocking everything out of mind, save my message, and I reinforced this with self-hypnosis, a life-saving tool for me. I used to give myself “ten minute treatments” before going to sleep, when I awoke, and a third time, in my office, during the day. Slowly, very slowly, I began to have less fear; I seemed more able to “forget myself” and focus on my message, and stuttering began to fade from my mind.  (After I gained adequate control of stuttering, I have continued to use self-hypnosis to this day to give myself mental “treatments” about all manner of things, from insomnia to health issues to making my daily “happiness decision”, which you can read in my book on Happiness; go to Amazon: Happiness in Seven Steps.

It took about five years to remove, say, 75% of it. The last 25% was harder to eliminate, but, at that point, almost no one knew that I had a problem, but I did; however seemingly controlled, it remained a latent threat. It took another ten years to eliminate all but, say, 5%. By then, I was 40. One year, I gave 48 speeches. Over the years, I have done about 50 radio broadcasts and a dozen TV shows and have given hundreds of speeches, as well as handling many legal proceedings of one kind or another.  I also did a few months of Toastmasters, luckily always winning.  I later taught public speaking to adults.  By age 50, my stuttering was down to 1% or so, but it’s still there. I have to watch it, to this very day. I learned from the philosopher Schopenhauer (1788-1860, German philosopher) this thought, which helped wash away the nightmares of my stuttering and the pervasive fears of failure that always haunted me,

We can survive certain experiences and fears only by forgetting them.

The key to my recovering my ability to be a public speaker has also proven to be the key to success in many other aspects of my life. Forgetting myself, that is, concentrating on my message, never saying anything which I did not believe, and thinking as much as possible about what others may want or need or want to know, all of this seemed to release my tongue and enrich my life.  The important thing isn’t self; it’s the message and the deed.  Once we embrace that, truly embrace it, our bodies (and tongues) follow suit.

As public speakers, most of us will never rival Churchill, Roosevelt, Webster, or Demosthenes (the greatest orator of Greece, who was also a stutterer, who put pebbles in his mouth to learn to control his tongue), but, if we will forget ourselves and concentrate on our message, we can improve ourselves and speak effectively, and that should suffice.

When I let go of what I am, I can become what I might be.
Lao Tzu (c. 6th Century BC, founder of Taoism)