by Tom Cirignano
Let’s face it, the fear of public speaking is crippling. It’s something that many people fear more than death itself. Unfortunately, giving-in to that fear allows great opportunities to pass us by.
Soon after publishing The Constant Outsider: Memoirs of a South Boston Mechanic, and 67 Cents: Creation of a Killer, I was surprised when people started asking me to attend functions and speak before their groups. I immediately seized-up in fear and refused those opportunities.
Knowing my dilemma, a friend kept insisting, “Tom, you should join Toastmasters. It’s an organization that helps people overcome their fear of public speaking.” After repeated coaxing, I called the local Toastmasters club, “Gateway Gabbers,” just for information. Sandy, the club’s friendly contact person, invited me to attend a few meetings as a guest. She said, “Nobody will pressure you to join, or speak. Just come and see what we’re all about.” So I went.
Immediately, I felt welcomed by the group. I explained that I needed to become comfortable speaking in public. Hearing of my missed opportunities, several members encouraged me to prepare a short oration about my books. They suggested, "You can make your presentation at the meetings as many times as you want, until you're comfortable with it. We’d be happy to help you with this!” How could I say no to that wonderful offer?
Each time I gave my presentation, I incorporated the valuable feedback from the previous meeting. Soon, I began to notice a difference in the way I was expressing myself, even outside of the meetings. In one-on-one situations, I was more relaxed, no longer feeling the need to rush through conversations. I was expressing exactly what I wanted to convey, clearly and confidently, and that felt extremely good!
Within months, I was accepting invitations to speak at libraries, book clubs, on talk radio, and local TV. Best of all, what I had to say was being received enthusiastically. I’m still a bit nervous as an event draws near, but I score a personal victory each time I’m able to say “Yes. I’ll be happy to do it.”
As I pondered the transformation in me, a thought came to me. The name of our club, “Gateway Gabbers,” didn’t do justice to the group’s true value. No longer feeling like an outsider, I brought up the idea of choosing a more distinguished and representative name for our club. To my amazement, the members agreed. A contest was held and name suggestions were submitted. Everyone voted for their name of choice, not knowing who had submitted which names. The winner was “Spirited Speakers Toastmasters Club.”
It has now been three years since I joined the group. While I’ve enjoyed several events, speaking publicly about my books, the greatest reward related to my new-found confidence was realized this past June, when my dear and only brother, John, passed away.
I received a call from his daughter, asking, “Uncle Tom, the family talked it over, and we were all wondering if you would be willing to present a eulogy at Dad’s funeral.” At first, I hesitated. Previously, my automatic response would have been, "I'm sorry, but I just can't do it." Instead, I answered, “Of course I will.”
With the words already etched in my heart, I was determined not to allow my fear or emotions to cut the eulogy short. In my mind, I reviewed all the things I had learned from my support group, such as, “Be careful of too many ahs and ums, take your time, and just pause for a few seconds if you need to gather your thoughts or emotions.”
John's funeral mass was attended by over one hundred people; by far the largest group I had ever addressed. Looking out at that sea of faces, all focused upon me, I put fear aside and focused on my task. As is true with all public speaking, if the subject matter is dear to you, if it’s something you are passionate about, those feelings will reflect in what you say.
I had recently visited with my brother during a rare day when he was home from the hospital. John was showing signs of exhaustion, so he and I retired to the living room. With the family out of earshot, it occurred to me that I had never expressed to my brother how I truly felt about him. I decided to take that opportunity to do just that. I didn’t want to speak in a solemn tone, as if to imply I might never get another chance to say these things, so I spoke in an upbeat way.
I told him what an amazing person I thought he was, that I truly admired him. His accomplishments were many, and I went through the list for him. My brother truly was amazing. He was a physicist and computer programmer who actually received a plaque signed by the President of the United States thanking him for his work on the Apollo lunar landing. And I only recently found out that he worked, in secret, developing the Patriot Missile Defense System. For years he couldn’t disclose that information to anyone, not even family. He had been successful at just about everything he ever attempted, and I wanted him to know how very proud I was to be able to call him my brother.
When I was finished talking, John looked up at me from his recliner, eyes half closed, and flashed a smile at me like I had never seen from him before.
I’m so glad I utilized that final opportunity to tell him the things I had been carrying in my heart for years. The sentiments that I expressed to him that day were exactly what I conveyed within his eulogy.
After the funeral, numerous people approached me to say they thought it was the most heartfelt and wonderful eulogy they had ever heard.
So as you can see, I owe my Spirited Speakers family a tremendous debt. Thanks to them, I was able to overcome my fear, and do justice to a life well lived.
Bottom line, whether you hone your public speaking skills by practicing in front of a mirror, in front of friends and family, or through the support and expertise of a group like Toastmasters, you will be rewarded in more ways, and in more aspects of your life than you can imagine. At the very minimum, you will gain confidence, courage, and credibility.
Heck, you might even sell a bunch more books while having fun doing it.
Thomas Cirignano was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1952. He moved to South Boston, taking over the family’s auto repair business, where he experienced first-hand, Southie’s era of unbridled organized crime and violence. In 1987, he sold the shop in “Southie,” spending the next eleven years in Florida. In 1998 he returned to Massachusetts.
Tom is a certified scuba diver, ultra-light aircraft pilot, has owned several motorcycles, and loves boating. He has been a contributing writer and served as an advisory member on the Standard-Times Newspaper Editorial Board. He also authored The Constant Outsider, Memoirs of a South Boston Mechanic. To learn more about Tom go to www.theconstantoutsider.com.