Breathing

I stand a couple of feet away from the wall and fall forward towards it, catching myself with my hands. I straighten my arms and press hard against the wall, as if I want to push it down. I take a quick deep inhale, then let it out slowly as I intone, “Monday.”

Then again, a quick inhale, a slow exhale through the mouth. “Monday, Tuesday.”

And again. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.”

I'm learning to breathe. My teacher, Natalie, is by my side, also leaning against the wall intoning the days of the week with me. She is a professor and speech teacher in the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University.

I feel compelled to tell my story. Partly because in the telling I gain insight into what happened. But also to increase awareness of the implications of life with a brain injury.

I'm not a perfectionist in any sense of the word, but when I do things I want to do a good job. Telling my story is important--a good job isn't enough. I want to make a difference. I want my audience to come away able to look brain injury survivors in the eye without stigma, whether our disability is visible or not. I want them empathize with us, not pity us.

In order to have a stronger impact, I've been working with Judy, my writing coach, to learn better writing skills. Now that I've written of my journey, it's time to move on to focus on speaking about it. And to pass my message on effectively, I need to better my public speaking skills.

I'm an effective teacher, and naturally thought I'd be a good speaker as well. I didn't realize that teaching and public speaking were so different. Teaching, in many ways, is more forgiving.

I'm not as good a public speaker as I'd like to be. Hands in my pockets, I pace as I speak, often facing away from the audience. I constantly intersperse my sentences with “uh”s and “um”s. Should I use slides? How much structure should I put into my presentations?

Shortly before I started working with Natalie, I watched a webinar about public speaking. But something about it didn't sit well with me, though I couldn't pinpoint it. The presenter, an actor in a previous life, did have some good pointers, but...

  • Practice, practice, practice.

  • You can move and talk at the same time.

  • Never apologize for the amount of time you don't have.

  • Let them go early.

  • Enlist the self-proclaimed experts in the room.

  • Deliver big moments center stage.

After the webinar, I looked up a few more of his videos and found one of him practicing his smile before he went on stage—I didn't sign up for his full immersion program.

During our first meeting, Natalie asked, “What do you want to do? What is it that you want to accomplish?”

And here I was, breathing, so that I'd be able to make an entire point without needing to break it up, so that I could go on the public speaking circuit without ruining my voice.

Natalie is going to teach me to speak in my true voice. She's going to help me become more me in front of an audience, less hampered by habitual constraints, such as careless breathing or apologetic body language. She wanted me to accomplish my goals, to tell my story, to get my message across. Effectively.

Breath in for a count of four. Then ha, ha, ha, ha.” then, “In for a count of three, then ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Now two and six.”

I breathed with her. In for the count of one, then “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” Then one and eight, and one and nine.