RACING heartbeat, sweaty palms, rising panic. There are few phrases that can provoke such a reaction in people but ‘public
speaking’ might just be one. The thought of standing in front of a group of people and exposing yourself to ridicule at a slip of the tongue or, even worse, forgetting your next line is daunting.
But, this risk is what a growing number of oratory warriors put themselves through every month for a variety of personal reasons as members of Stranraer Speakers.
Tackling a wide range of topics, themes and arguments each meeting, all the now undaunted members took that step to walk through the doors and stand centre stage. But why? Why, would you put yourself through the stress, nervousness and dread?
Secretary Alec Ross explains: “Someone once described public speaking thus: people at funerals would rather be the one in the box than the one delivering the eulogy.
“Even after all this time, I understand that. It can be terrifying. But that’s the point isn’t it? You meet your fears head on. The late David Jackson, perhaps the best speaker we ever had, used to say it was all about ‘getting your butterflies flying in the same direction’. I like that. Embrace the nerves, use them. The day you don’t feel nervous is the day it all goes horribly wrong.”
The club has a very welcoming atmosphere and new or prospective members will find positive encouragement in abundance with no pressure to leap right in.
Clubs created by the two sexes merged into one back in the mid-nineties and, while not an original founder of the male section, long-standing members like Eric Archibald, who joined back in the early seventies, remain today.
Its popularity, like any club, has ebbed and flowed. In the original club’s existence there was a point when the closure of membership was considered because of its popularity. So many members made it difficult to allow everyone the chance to speak, contrary to the whole ethos. Unlike many clubs with a lengthy history, however, it remains strong today and has for many years been going through a purple patch – both on home soil and further afield.
Its high point was back in 1995 when Val Plant won the UK title but Alex Cairns reignited past glories last year when he won the area speech competition for the second time. Douglas McClure got all the way to the national final in 2013 and the club has also won the Gavel competition – competed for by all the clubs in the Border Area – on two occasions in recent years.
The Stranraer branch is part of the UK wide Association of Speakers Clubs, which produces a useful manual covering all aspects of speaking, including preparation, use of voice, vocabulary, structure, use of humour, use of gestures and others. Members find it invaluable to improve skills and to work on weaknesses.
“Equally though, there is no pressure and how much of this you want to take in is entirely up to the individual, Alec said. “The important thing is that there is a development structure in place.”
But back to the why. Facing your fears is a good reason but there is another – practice makes perfect.
For men and women whose lives require to stand up in front of a large audience and talk, what better way to practice than in front of an audience who will give advice on how to improve and craft your technique? All in a constructive, if at times, to the point way.
Alec said: “Eric is a good example of someone whose speaking experience aided his professional development – he became a successful councillor in the region for a good number of years. The early years had a number of professional people – police, insurance, banking and so on – who had similar experiences.
“In recent times our member Piers Butler used the club to good effect when changing career from IT to teaching. In my own experience it helped me enormously during the recent referendum campaign, when thinking on your feet was essential.
“At a recent meeting I was asked at the very last minute to take over the chairmanship for the evening. Sure, it concentrated the mind but the point is I had the tools to do it. It can be anything – for some people the first public speech they give is at their own wedding. That must be bloody terrifying. The club can help even at that level.”
Education officers produce the programme and decide who speaks when. Every evening has a theme, and a specific task to achieve. For example, a recent meeting had the theme “War and Peace” with the specific task “speech construction”.
Meetings are set up for the benefit of all. A typical meeting has two set speeches from members, both of which are evaluated by a fellow member. The speaker should be praised for the things she did well, and given constructive advice on areas to work on. If the speaker is relatively inexperienced, it is important an experienced evaluator is chosen.
After the speeches, it’s a break for coffee before moving onto the topics session. A topics chairman asks questions of each member for a two to three minute answer off-the-cuff. The “General Evaluator” then picks up on points that may have been missed and judges the success of the evening on the whole.
“The aim is to provide all of this within a friendly and light-hearted environment,” Alec said. “On the whole, I think we achieve that.”
Alec is a strong proponent of another reason for people to at least give the club a try – to benefit the wider community.
“I go back to the recent referendum,” he said. “A frequent experience was that I’d speak for ten minutes and then we’d get questions. Invariably however, it was after the close that someone would approach from the back of the hall and ask the most pertinent question of the night.
“Why hadn’t he asked it earlier? It’s obvious – he didn’t feel confident enough. If he’d been at the Speakers Club he would have asked it, no question whatsoever. So he would have benefitted – and so would 99 other people in the room, many of whom wanted to ask the same question. It’s incredibly liberating to be able to ask that question. A good speaker not only helps himself but the wider community.”
The social aspect should not be underestimated either with the club bringing together people from all walks of life, epitomised by their last Burns Supper attended by people from Bute to Tenbury Wells.
“I particularly enjoy meeting people from different jobs and different backgrounds. I find myself thinking about what we discussed for days afterwards,” Alec said.
With the club having been in existence for so long and so many speeches having echoed off the walls, it is safe to assume that some have fallen short of the mark. One particular lady, who remains nameless, had a way to let you know.
Alec said: “She never missed a meeting and had some great euphemisms when evaluating a speech that maybe didn’t impress her terribly. If she couldn’t think of anything complimentary to say she’d utter ‘Well, I could hear every word’
“If the speech was, in her opinion, on the lengthy side, she’d say ‘Well, that fairly shortened the winter’.
Strictly speaking, it’s all about the banter