The Key to Fooling Everyone Into Thinking You’re a Natural at Public Speaking (Bye Bye, Stiff & Stuttery!)
“How many pisco sours have you had?!?!?!”
The words galloped out of my mouth when my best friend, M, asked me—the girl who spells god with a lowercase g and who has openly questioned the institution of marriage—to officiate her wedding.
The first image that came to mind was me standing on an altar wearing a maroon-colored robe, flicking water onto their foreheads and cueing Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. The fact that my fingers wanted to type “alter” instead of “altar” is further proof that I have no business marrying two human beings, let alone two of my dearest friends who know I can barely remember to rip the price tag off my top, let alone memorize a ceremony in Spanish.
Oh, I didn’t mention that part? While I might not be a certified wedding officiate, I do happen to roll a decent R—useful when 50% of the 36 guests are coming all the way from Chile and don’t speak a lick of English.
Mostly in English, my friends had requested. But if you could throw in some Spanish so no one feels left out, that would be great.
Fast forward to this past week in Tulum, Mexico, and the (royal blue) robe I wore was called Adrianna Papel, and the altar was called the ocean. They stood together in a semi-circle, half facing me, half facing their thirty six guests looking on from a set of pews constructed from folded down wooden beach chairs (precisely my kind of church), happily holding each other’s hand like two buzzy teenagers, while I stood across from them to complete the half moon formation. Disappointingly, Whoopi was a no-show.
As I stood next to them delivering the ceremony I had prepared and guiding my friends through their vows, I confirmed that this was one of the hardest public speaking gigs I’ve ever had.
Not because of the public part, or because of the speaking part, but because of the exact opposite: The personal.
Most of the time, when you speak to a group of people, you don’t really care whether the lady in the red dress in the third row loves you or hates you—until she's your best friend’s aunt. Most of the time, you pride yourself in your work—but your friendship doesn’t depend on it. Most of the time, you can prepare your emotional high and low points of a talk—not actually feel them.
And yet, the personal is what makes something meaningful. It’s why my friends chose to share stories about their love, rather than memorizing forced and cliché vows. It’s why they chose me, of all people, to officiate one of the most important days of their lives. It’s why, at one point during the ceremony, I shared an excerpt from a Facebook message that M had sent me years ago that said, “I have never imagined being with someone so much.” And it’s why, at one point when the groom was speaking, he said this:
I’m not here to make promises, because making a promise implies that it’s something we must force ourselves to do. Just like a tree doesn’t have to promise that it will take in oxygen every day, we don’t have to promise to love each other. We just do.
Those were his ideas—not someone else's he had swiped from some template on the internet. And your ideas are as personal as it gets.
The personal makes it meaningful.
Except, most of us forget that we’re all humans who want to connect with other humans. Not “officiates.” Not “grooms.” Not “brides.” Not “public speakers.” We want it to be personal. However, most of us, when we go to deliver a talk in front of a group of people, whether it’s officiating your best friend’s wedding on the beaches of Tulum or giving a class online, start putting the pressure on ourselves to be “the authority.” And you know what “authority” looks like when you’re talking, right?
Like a little gnome is running around ramming hot pokers up your ass.
You’re stiff. You stutter. You look awkward. You spit (as anyone might who has a hot poker up their bum). And as a result, you BOMB. Not only does your delivery sound like a malfunctioning Johnny 5, but no one can pay any attention to what you’re saying because they’re too busy feeling sorry for how nervous you are—and how nervous you’re making them, too!
Like I told M when we were preparing on the terrace in the days before the ceremony:
If you were to sit down with any one of those people individually and laugh about this story over a glass of wine, how would you tell it? You wouldn’t get nervous, palms sweating, scared that you’re going to forget what to say. You know what to say, because the story IS the story. So tell the story the same way. Be M—not some bride giving a speech. They’re here to see you, not her.
Instead of thinking what something “should sound like,” think about what you really want to say, instead. I’ll bet anything they're not the same.
The authority in you will want to say something socially acceptable. The human in you will want to say something else.
Be the human, always.
And never let the pressure of the occasion trump the pleasure of originality.