We just got back from the Florida Secular Rally in Tallahassee, and there’s only one way I can describe it:
This was actually my first time attending any atheist event, and in was fantastic in so many ways. While there wasn’t a massive turnout – Aron noted a distinct lack of P.Z. – this also had the advantage of being cozy and comfortable, with a friendly atmosphere all around. Everybody knew everybody, and I got to spend all day hanging out with some of my personal atheist role models.
Just having a place where the values of secularism, tolerance and equality are shared by everyone present was a new experience for me, and that counts for a whole hell of a lot. My family and I were able to feel safe and respected, a rarity anywhere else in Florida.
Everyone was incredibly supportive, and it was fun, relaxing, and a perfect setting for another first: my first public speaking engagement.
I hadn’t done any public speaking since I was 12, when my freshman English teacher gave us the simple assignment of memorizing a poem to recite in front of the class. Naturally, I completely forgot it and cried a lot in front of everyone when it was my turn (this sort of thing happened surprisingly often at that age). Since then, public speaking hasn’t really been one of my more significant interests.
But when Mark Palmer of the Humanists of Florida Association invited me to speak at the rally – and I’m beyond grateful to him for giving a first-timer a chance – I figured it was long past time to get over it. This was a big opportunity, and I couldn’t let it pass by just because of a little fear. For better or worse, I committed myself to it and said yes.
I let various ideas for the speech drift around for a couple months until they started to coalesce, and I didn’t actually finish writing it until about a week before the big day. I had little idea of what the event would be like – where I’d be standing, how many people would be in the audience, whether I’d know anybody, how it would generally feel to be there – so I just had to imagine I was addressing a crowd of thousands that I needed to impress accordingly.
I visualized this while standing at the kitchen counter, lecturing our Halloween pumpkins. I only practiced it about 3 or 4 times, when no one else was home but our toddler, who was usually more interested in Sesame Street. Heather didn’t even get to hear it before the real thing, which made her a bit nervous about how I would do. I just figured I wouldn’t know how it would all turn out until I actually did it – but I could still do my best to prepare.
Yet after looking up various recordings of major speeches from all sorts of events, I realized that I just needed to find my own voice and let it come out. There was no big secret, no key to blowing everyone away. Everyone had their own style, and it worked for them. What they had in common was exactly what I expected: to be that good, I’d have to try to connect with the audience, speak from the heart to each and every one of them, be relaxed and natural, yet confident and controlled, but also lively… while not being overly rehearsed. And though it seemed like a tall order to pull all of that off at the same time, I recognized that it would all ultimately come down to one thing: just fucking do it.
So that’s what I did. It was nice that plenty of other speakers went before me, so that I could take it all in and get a sense of the general tone of the event and of other people’s on-stage styles. And by the time it was my turn, I didn’t have to use that trick of imagining myself as a confident and prepared person anymore – because I already was.
As I stood on the stage, the loudspeakers echoing throughout the park, I imagined myself speaking to the entire world. And it felt amazing. The crowd was wonderful, and after I was done, the other speakers assured me that I did a great job. I had done it. Public speaking may have seemed intimidating before, but once I had finished, it wasn’t anymore. It was fun!
While this is supposedly a common source of anxiety, I can say that it really wasn’t all that hard. If someone ever invites you to speak somewhere, and you’re not sure whether you should: go for it! Give it a try, and you might find out it’s actually not too bad.
I’d like to thank all of the organizers, speakers and attendees who helped to make this one of the best days ever, and a pretty life-changing experience too. All of you were great, it was wonderful to meet everyone, and I’m definitely looking forward to doing it again.