Photo By Hugo Yuen at Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, British Columbia
10 Things I Have Learned as a Public Speaker

Ten years ago, I unintentionally set myself on the path to a career in public speaking. I began in middle school — and continued through high school and college — after I realized by the age of 13 that none of my classmates had lived a life even remotely like the one I had. I was a little shocked, and saddened, because all they knew about people like me was what they’d learned from books and movies. How could someone understand the pain of losing one’s family without hearing the story first-hand? In some ways, I envied my classmates. All they were asked to do was to study a chapter on war or genocide or poverty, then take a test or write a paper. Some were preparing to solve these problems, others not at all.

I might have been as complacent as they if my country had not fallen apart when I was six. Growing up in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, I had a wonderful life, one that I have not experienced anywhere since, even after living in nine countries. That life changed dramatically in 1994, when a conflict began that left a million dead and millions more displaced all over the world.

After relocating to the United States years later at age 12, I learned in school about the American Civil War, the plight of the African slaves, the Holocausts, and the wars of the past 70 years — and I was mortified. I couldn’t believe that my fellow students felt no fear. What happened in the past is still happening; it’s not just history. It seemed they should be taking these subjects a bit more seriously. Was I crazy? Looking back now, I realize that my reactions were just right.

I began to share my experiences with my classmates: what it was like to live in war-torn countries and subsist in a refugee camps. We chatted as casually as if we were talking about what to wear. I spoke of survival tactics, how my old sister, Claire and I traveled from one country to another without documents — learning languages every other month or year and being ready to move whenever. As interest grew, I expanded these conversations into full-blown story hours. I wanted people to understand the injustice in the world on a personal level. Sooner or later, those victims could be any one of us.

My formal speaking career began before a group of 10 third graders. We drew pictures of my home in Rwanda. I told them about my mother’s huge garden and our mango tree. The lessons I taught were simple. Play nicely. Take care of plants. Take care of people. Since then, my journey has lead me places that I never imagine, from four time guest on the Oprah Show, TEDx speaker, Chicago Ideas Week and may other places. My audience has grown to more than 100,000 people, internationally. Here is what I have learned on that global journey:

  1. As a speaker, your #1 job is to know your audience.

I could give an example of a lecturer who had no clue about this. (But then I would get in trouble with one of my former schools . . .).

2.Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Once you arrive at the venue, practice on the stage because the environment you’re in always changes things. I once spent a month planning a speech, but when I got on the stage, I realized that what I had prepared was not the story I wanted to tell. Instead, I shared a different story in a similar format. Preparation is the most rewarding part of the process. Delivering the speech is just the final step.

3. You are a student as well as a teacher.

You are there to learn from your audience as much as they are there to learn from you. Remember to thank them for listening and for having you in their presence.

4. Be present with your audience.

Don’t cheat on them by allowing your mind to wander to personal problems. Leave those at home. Your stage should be a drama-free zone.

5. Be honest.

Be as honest as you can get but not too honest, or you can get yourself in hot water!

6. Do not allow your Ego to take over.

As a speaker, you are in the spotlight, but you are not the star. Get off your high horse; what you say on stage is not about you. It’s about guiding your audience to grow, to be people who are of value to society.

7. What you wear matters.

Some in your audience will want to see you naked, and not just metaphorically. As much as you would like to show off your abs, do not do it. What you wear matters. Your listeners will be judgmental; make sure they focus on your words, not your attire.

8. Questions and body language.

When audience asks questions, pay attention not only to their words or ideas but also to their gestures. There is a lot of truth in body language.

9. How dare they ask that question?!

Yes, there will be that chick or dude in the audience who will ask questions just to show off. As annoying as this can be, take a deep breath and tell them that you will think about what he said and get back them.

10. Ignore that Panelist who wants to show-off.

If you are on a panel, some of the panelists may want to flaunt their verbal virtuosity. Do not stoop to that level. Remind yourself to focus on your listeners and your message. The audience will watch carefully how you behave, so remain cool and calm and do not be that self-absorbed guy or girl.

I have more suggestions of course — about what to do and what not to do — but here is what matters most: if you have survived a traumatic experience, you must fight to rise above that which did not kill you by sharing your story with other people. Speak it. Dance it. Sculpt it. Paint it. Whichever medium you choose, make it tell. Celebrate being alive wherever you are.

I never thought that being a public speaker would teach me so much about life and make it so beautiful as well. I am thankful to those who’ve listened to my story over and over as well as those who’ve helped me share it. For me, the act of storytelling is an act of healing.

Thank You Celia Buckman for editing this piece.

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