I was one of those kids in school whose hand always shot up with answers. Well, to clarify, that was in history and English — and probably not ever in math or science.
All through college, in almost all of my classes, I always had plenty to say.
When I went into the work world, I was confident and ambitious and quickly found that my talents lay more in writing. It became easier for me not to speak, but to convey thoughts and ideas on the page. I began to shift into the introverted side of my personality, raising my hand less and less often, enjoying the safety and comfort of the world of my own thoughts. And in the male-dominated work world, it felt like a brilliant refuge — easier, less of a stretch.
Years ago, when I was between writing jobs, I went to a career coach and he asked me about my life. As I was telling him my story, he began laughing.
He said, “You should be a writer and a speaker! You’re funny.”
I never wanted to do stand-up but some tiny part of me always loved performing. I left feeling that I would like to do that — write and speak. And then I never did. I kept on writing, I wrote for others to perform — I “chickened out” as they say. Let someone else get on that stage, at that podium, in that spotlight. Not me. No way.
“You should write and speak” kept nagging at me. And if you looked at a chart of my desire vs. my ability to speak in public — they were going in opposite directions. My confidence was wavering as my need and desire was growing.
You know how when you try to push down a thought it keeps popping up and one day you just feel like you might die if you don’t at least try? That’s what happened to me. I had slowly begun to speak a bit more in public, at parents’ meetings, at work meetings, and I found a tiny bit of confidence. That’s how one night I found myself in a rehearsal hall in midtown Manhattan with a small group of women and one man, starting a workshop which was about creating your own solo show.
I knew the guy who taught this workshop and I trusted him. I was only taking the intro class, so I knew I wasn’t committing to performing anything — just to starting the process of writing. Writing has always been fun for me, even when it’s difficult and I question every word I’ve written, and when I can (try to) be funny and irreverent, even though that’s scary too.
The idea of performing felt terrifying, like standing on top of a huge cliff and jumping off. I didn’t know if I could do it, but I just kept going to class. Years ago, when I was in a writing class, I would listen to my work being read and then race home and throw up. Now I was not only reading it myself, I was going to stand on a stage (a small one) and perform it. Maybe. Someday.
Three months later I did. I performed my 20 minute solo show with the three other women in my class, in front an audience filled with our friends and family — safe — and I was terrified. In fact, that first night I discovered what the term “cotton mouth” means. It means you cannot speak. Your mouth is so dry there is not one drop of saliva inside it to let you speak. It’s like a desert. It’s like someone stuck glue on your tongue and it keeps sticking to the roof of your mouth. I could see the faces of my friends and family and they looked so empathetic, and I kept going, trying to speak, talking about my mother, being a caregiver for her, my difficult marriage, trying to be funny, but the simple act of speaking was almost impossible that first time. It was torturous and it felt like one of those stage nightmares.
I did it though. I survived and I got laughs and I got hooked.
I found my voice again. It was there all the time, it was just buried in fear and anxiety about “coming out” about speaking my mind and being seen.
It is life changing. The workshop I took in 2008 began in 2001 and over these last 13 years, hundreds of students have performed their solo shows, won awards, talked about topics like death, dating, body image, gay marriage, single parenting, cancer, mothers, divorce — you name it, someone has performed it.
You can now listen to the Moth stories on podcasts all day long, seven days a week, or go to live shows — and numerous other story telling venues have popped up just about everywhere. Clearly, there is a need for people to share stories — to speak.
I even changed my job to become a speaking coach and to help others tell their stories in companies, schools, and non-profits. In this disconnected world of social media, standing up in front of a room full of people and sharing stories is one of the most empowering and life affirming experiences I have ever known. I wanted to help others know what that feels like too.
Stories have always been how leaders like Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, every spiritual leader, and business and political leaders have moved people. We generally don’t get excited about statistics and numbers, we resonate with stories, real and imagined ones.
If you are going to be a leader — at some point, you have to find your voice. You can always hire people to write for you but you cannot find someone to speak for you. You have to own your voice.
I have had the privilege of being in a room filled with corporate people and when one person tells a story that reveals vulnerability, it gives everyone else permission to tell their stories. I’ve heard stories about cancer, divorce, birth, death, job loss, even marriage proposals — from Dublin to Singapore, Los Angeles to Berlin, all over the world, the human connection is palpable. It’s thrilling.
So if you’re looking for a cliff to jump off — to find your voice and if you have a story to tell (and I believe everyone does) — tell it. Feel that exhilaration of the human spirit that comes from speaking our truths. Whether you’re in a meeting at your job and you’re giving a presentation, or you’re standing on a stage — finding your voice empowers you to be authentic and strong.
Go ahead — jump!