Do you ever stop to think about the things you’re not? Or maybe catch yourself talking (out loud to someone else or silently to yourself) about those things you aren’t? I have since some of my earliest memories, and I don’t think it’s all that uncommon, either, though what those things are can vary significantly. And I’ve been thinking a lot about all those things I’ve not been in my life after a recent—rather unexpected—experience.
In the fall, I was contacted via my website about giving a speech to a large women’s club about foster care. My first thought when I read the email, as I laughed, was that the woman had the wrong person.
I don’t do public speaking, I thought.
I never had… never would. And yet, I called her at the number she provided to talk her about the speaking engagement. I learned that she’d discovered me as a local author and read some of my blog posts and thought I’d be a good fit to give a thirty-minute speech about foster care as they were donating to a charity focused on supporting children who age out of the foster care system. I was honored to be asked to speak and before I had a chance to think about it, I said as much. After I hung up, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
Why had I agreed to give a speech when I don’t do public speaking? I’m not a speaker. And yet I’d agreed to be. I knew it would probably be a good thing for me to do from a personal development perspective and yet I felt panicky about what I’d agreed to do.
That sense of panic grew ten-fold when I discovered in mid-November that the date wasn’t in April as we originally discussed, but in early January. That was several months less to prepare than I’d been expecting. I hadn’t even started on my speech itself, instead focusing on cultivating a more positive mindset about it. Telling myself I would do well and visualizing myself successfully performing a speech suddenly became harder… much harder.
Work was busy, not to mention the holidays approaching, and in the back of my mind, I was counting down the days to when I’d be standing in front of a very large group (about a hundred people) delivering a speech I had yet to craft. I was struggling with what to talk about because a speech is intended to inform and then move your audience to take some sort of action. But what action did I need this group of women to take?
I wasn’t trying to persuade them to donate to a foster care charity—they were already doing that.
I wasn’t trying to persuade them to bring in foster children of their own—this was a group of women past the period of their lives in which they’d be raising young children.
And because they weren’t going to be opening their homes to foster children, it didn’t make sense to talk to them about specific things they could do to better parent a traumatized child.
And then it hit me right around Christmas: there was something that everyone—regardless of age or station in life, regardless of what charities they were or weren’t donating to, regardless of whether they were going to raise foster children or not—could do. And that’s what I needed to focus my speech on.
That thing was to exercise kindness, compassion, and understanding.
I wrote my speech, typing it out and then editing it until I was happy with it. I never intended to read it, but typing it out helped. I started running through it several times a day, unable to do so without reading it. As the date for the speech neared, my anxiety ramped up. Reading a speech was a terrible thing to do, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to give it otherwise. Every time I visualized standing in front of a room to speak, my mind went blank. It would be a disaster. Even so, I continued to practice, because there was no way I was going to back out—I’d made a commitment and come hell or high water, I was going to follow through with it. I started to run through glancing down less and less, so I created notecards with just a few bullet points each and started practicing from those.
My husband came along with me on the day of the speech for moral support and I was feeling oddly calm as we walked into the building, each of us carrying a box of books—copies of my memoir, mostly, that my contact had asked I bring with me to sell to the audience afterwards. He helped me set up the table for my books and then we had lunch along with the rest of the audience. Finally, it was about five minutes from when I would be speaking.
I turned to my husband, crushing his hand in mine and spoke under my breath so no one else would be able to hear me.
“I think I’m going to throw up.”
My calm had fled and left me with a feeling of sheer terror. What the hell was I doing? But before I could begin to answer that question, I was being introduced and needed to make my way to the podium.
I carried up my typed-out speech and my notecards and set them on the podium. Because I’m short, I couldn’t see my notecards past the lip of the podium, which left me with only the printed speech to rely on. Not only that, but I had to hold in my hand a microphone. I hadn’t practiced with holding onto something. The time for practice had passed, however, and it was time to give my speech.
I thanked them for having me and confessed that I was a little nervous and asked them to bear with me, my voice stuttering noticeably in my anxiety, then began my speech.
My stuttering was gone by the third or fourth sentence. I glanced down at the papers on the podium two, maybe three times, during the entirety of the speech. I moved naturally, using my left hand as I normally would when speaking and never forgot to hold up the microphone so everyone could hear me. I looked around, making and holding eye contact as I spoke, pausing to let things sink in. The room was dead silent—I never even heard the shifting of a chair. In fact, the only thing I heard was occasional gasping and sniffling. And then when I was finished, the audience erupted, every single person clapping and rising to their feet.
A standing ovation. For me—the not-speaker.
When I took questions next, many women raised their hands just to thank me for speaking. Afterwards, when I was selling my books to the women lined up at the table, woman after woman told me it was the best speech they’d heard in five or seven or fifteen years, and they had monthly speakers as part of the club. Women were still teary and asked if they could hug me. They thanked me—again—for speaking and several asked if I’d be interested in speaking to other organizations they were members of.
My husband sat next to me, taking payments as I signed books and talked to the women about my speech and when the last woman was gone, my husband turned to me and said, “I think you actually are a speaker, and this is just the beginning for you.”
I’ve heard his words echoing in my mind for the last few weeks since I gave that speech, so counter to what I’ve told myself my whole life: I’m not a speaker. I’d shied away from the kind of visibility in my accounting career that might require me to do any form of public speaking outside leading meetings (which I still avoided when possible) and been more than happy to have excuses to turn down other speaking invitations, and now I was wondering what might have happened if I hadn’t done those things.
That line of thought is what ultimately led me to thinking about all the other things in my life I’d told myself I wasn’t. When I was much younger, I told myself I wasn’t lovable. And yet I’m surrounded by love from my chosen family and friends. I told myself I wasn’t smart enough to pass my CPA exams and tried to sabotage myself, and yet I passed them all on my first attempt anyway. I told myself I wasn’t mother material, and yet I have two amazing children I love parenting. I told myself most of my life that I wasn’t a writer, and yet writing is a part of my daily life now, whether on my website, at my day job, or via my books.
What might have happened in my life—what things might have unfolded differently—if I wasn’t constantly telling myself all these things I wasn’t? What other successes or pockets of happiness might I have found if I hadn’t talked myself out of them? What might my career path look like now if I hadn’t ever told myself I wasn’t a writer?
I’ve made a promise to myself as a result of my recent experience with public speaking that changed the way I look at and engage with the world: whenever I hear that voice inside telling me something I’m not, I’m going to ask why and make sure I do it anyway. Because the only sure way to not be something is if you never try to begin with.
Instead, I’m going to be all the things I want to tell myself I’m not and couldn’t possibly be until my voice instead says, “Why not?”
Katherine Turner is an award-winning author and a life-long reader and writer. She grew up in foster care from the age of eight and is passionate about improving the world through literature, empathy, and understanding. In addition to writing books, Katherine blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society on her website www.kturnerwrites.com. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get a free copy of her book moments of extraordinary courage.