Jerry Seinfeld pointed out that when people are asked what scares them the most, more people say public speaking than death — which means that at a funeral, most people would rather be the person who died than the person giving the eulogy.
The new documentary, Speak, is about that fear and about the people who work to overcome it with the help of Toastmasters, an international non-profit providing support and inspiration to help its members find their voices. Much of the film focuses on the participants who have been so successful in telling their stories in public that they are competing for the Toastmasters World Championship. The success of story-telling organizations like The Moth and StoryCorps has increased interest in telling and listening to stories, which made it even more fun to talk to the people behind this film, Brian Weidling and Paul Galichia.
How did you get started on this project?
BW: I was out to dinner with my wife, who had her best friend in town from college. She started telling us a story about when she was at American Express, she worked with a woman who was terribly shy and couldn’t look anybody in the eye. One day their group had to go and give a speech or a presentation to the entire set of executives at American Express, like 500 guys, and she was the one who volunteered for it. She did really great, she got all their information across. It felt a little formal at times but it was so out-of-her box, she couldn’t believe that this woman was able to do it. So she asked her afterwards, “Pat, you could barely look me in the eye, how did you do that?” She said, “I joined Toastmasters.”
And so my wife’s friend was like, “You should look into Toastmasters, there’s something there.” That gave us the first kernel about the fear of public speaking and Paul went and started to check out the meetings and we started to talk to some people and that got us involved with wanting to talk with Toastmasters international headquarters. When we went to talk with them, they said, “Oh, you should come out to our convention and check out the world championship for public speaking,” and at that moment Paul and I looked at each other and knew there was an interesting set of stories to be had here.
What is it that people are so afraid of in public speaking?
PG: Chris Matthews says it: “You’re just scared you’re going to make a fool of yourself.” That’s the biggest thing, that you’re going to fumble and lose your place and everyone is listening to every single word that you’re saying and at some point you’re going to stumble and everyone is going to laugh at you, and you’re going to be embarrassed. There’s something very primal about that fear, and that’s kind of what I think is at the core of public speaking fear.
And at toastmasters, is it just the support of the group? Is it really the same sort of effect as Weight-Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous and groups like them? Is it because they all share the same fear that they’re able to support each other or are there specific techniques that they use?
PG: There are definitely a set of techniques that they use. But the beginning of it–when I first walked into my first meeting I thought, “Oh my god, this is like AA.” I felt that warm, supportive sort of feeling from everybody, there was a smile on everybody’s face and every person got up there and you could tell they might be a little nervous, they were looking back at all these friendly faces—and I can’t remember which Toastmaster said it, I think it was Darren McRoy that at Toastmasters, the meetings become a place where you feel comfortable enough to fail.
If your fear is failure, that seems to be step one to overcome that fear, so if you fail, it’s fine.
BW: Something that is key to getting over your fear of public speaking is just actually doing it, and that seems to be the value a lot of people find in the Toastmaster world. It’s not only the warm environment (because it is very warm and forgiving and all that) but also you get a chance to get up and do it on a regular basis. More than anything, one of the things that we noticed, was in the way people got over the fear of public speaking, they just got encouraged to do it and they built on the self-confidence from the first speech, then the second speech, then the third speech…and I think it gives them a forum to do that.
You focused not so much on the people who were terrified as the people who were really superb; everybody that you featured was world-class.
PG: I feel like we had a place where we figured that was a great launching pad, for fear of public speaking, and to get into this world and to put it in a context of what this entire setting is going to be. And then you start meeting the people who really excel at it and then you get into their human story.
It was hard for me to imagine that any of the people who were competing came to Toastmasters because they were ever afraid of speaking. It seemed to me they all must’ve been comfortable in front of an audience their whole lives.
Paul: One of our contestants says she always felt like she never had a voice. It’s not necessarily a fear of public speaking, but they didn’t feel they had a place to express themselves.
What makes somebody a great public speaker? When you think of the great orators of our time, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton—what gives someone the power to move and inspire?
BW: Something to say is the first thing. They had a message. A lot of people get up there and they don’t really know what they’re going to say—that really hurts you as a public speaker. But when you talk about those great orators, they had very important things to say, and I think the biggest thing is the message. You have to start with a message and they all started with very important messages.
PG: They also have a great self-confidence when they’re up there. They have that presence, they have that essence of “I’m in control, I have a message to deliver and I’m going to stick to that,” so they have that self-confidence and belief. A lot of them work on their voices, they work on their body language, all those things, and I also think they have an element of empathy to draw you in, to get you personally involved in what they’re talking about.
The competitors all had these very, very personal stories of challenge and triumph. They were not talking about great ideas or visions or policy implications, they were talking about their own lives. One thing that I did learn from the movie is the way they do focus on the body language—because when you think about giving a speech, you just think about standing behind a podium, but it’s very choreographed in a way.
BW: I think those speeches are like one-man-shows. It’s one of the things, it’s like a solo-performance piece as opposed to just sitting there and reading something into a microphone. That was one of the cool things about the film, I thought, was that we had these performers and it was really exciting to watch them practice speeches, rehearse it, block it out, and then go for it.
That’s kind of like what you do as filmmakers, of course. Tell me a little bit about how you put the pieces of this film together to make a compelling presentation.
BW: Well, we started with 420 hours of footage and just culling that down to a two and a half hour cut was pretty difficult. Taking it from there, cutting out that final hour, making the decisions about what stayed and what went, that was tough. We had a lot of characters that we loved that you never get to meet because we followed them early on in the contest and then they would lose in the third or fourth round, so their story wasn’t going to resonate all the way through and it was like a red-herring taking you down one path. So, we did a lot of cuts. We looked at so many different characters and at the end, the biggest thing that we had to work on was how we take you through sort of the backdrop of the fear of public speaking and introducing you to Toastmasters without getting you stuck in that world. We knew that once you got to meet Rich and the rest of the characters, from there the movie really takes off. We tried to entertain and inform at the beginning, but then really get to the place where you get these personal stories. That was probably the biggest burden of our post-production process, what did we trim out at the beginning, how did we smooth those corners over to finally get you around the curb to where you meet the characters.
PG: They have so many conflicts, I mean, Rich puts it all on the line to win this line and Lashunda is battling through with her disease that is very severe and you’ve got that heart-warming story with the older couple—and I mean, great personal stories that everyone can kind of connect to on a certain level.
I had a feeling as I was watching it that there was probably going to be a deleted scene section on the DVD with some great stories on it that you just didn’t have time for. Is there something that just broke your heart to cut out?
BW: A lot. There are so many instances of that. Just from sometimes it being just a quirky quote that we had heard so many times that was still making us laugh, but then you’d see it in the context of the overall story and you realize…just not going to work, the audience may not even get it because they weren’t there when it originally happened, that kind of stuff.
PG: We had a lot of people that we met who were just such quirky people and kind of so entertaining in their way—you know, the trapeze artist who is trying to be the world champion of public speaking, you know? Things like that that were very compelling on their own, but once we cut them into the film they just didn’t work.
BW: Took us away from what was really happening.
PG: Yeah, it kind of diminished the rest of what we were really doing. It was sad to see those things go, all of a sudden be like, “Oh, well, that whole trip to Montana….might as well not happened.” So…
Did spending time with these people change your own approach to public speaking? Sounds like you’re both not at all shy, but did you learn anything from it?
BW: Hugely, hugely. The biggest thing for me was that I’m an and-um person. So, when you go enough Toastmasters meetings and watch them hit the buzzer every time someone says and or um, you know, filler words, that really changed me. The other thing that really changed me as a public speaker was the idea of watching these people who are preparing and realizing that the biggest thing that they’re doing is that they’re practicing. They’re working on crafting their speech, they’re spending enough time on that to really make a good message and they’re getting in front of a mirror, in front of their friends in their living room or in front of their Toastmasters club and they’re doing that speech over and over and over again—then you start to see the process of how they become better with that speech and that changed me. I know that it’s all about hard work at this point when it comes to public speaking. If you spend enough time crafting your message and then you spend enough time practicing your message, you’ll do okay.
PG: And I think knowing what you’re talking about really helps you. Another thing that I learned in the process is you kind of learn through osmosis, in a way—just being in the room is a lot, and filming a lot of speeches. You kind of start taking on the good qualities of what a good speaker is, and it was kind of a funny phenomenon at the beginning, because you’re like, “Eh, I’m not that good a public speaker,” and then it’s two years later, you’ve spent so much time in that world…
BW: As well as in the front of Toastmaster’s groups explaining what we’re doing. That’s when we first started to get our belts tightened on being good public speakers.
Do you feel that in 2012 that we are losing the ability to become a great public speaker, that the kids who are growing up today spend so much time texting each other back and forth, that we are losing the ability to communicate that way?
BW: I don’t know if that’s happened yet, I feel like when I talk to, like my old communication studies professor, I went to Emerson College in Boston.
It was a great experience. While I was there, one of the first things you do is you have to take a public speaking course. So I think that there’s a movement to try and preserve that type of oratory in the midst of texting and IM’ing and every other sort of digital way that we communicate for the most part, nowadays. I think there’s almost a struggle going on in that there is more of a premium on all this technological information being thrust on us, that the people who can speak and can look you in the eye and deliver a message are the ones who are sort of holding an advantage in society, still, and the ones who are hiding behind texts and emails and stuff like that, they’re going to have a little more difficulty. But I think that at this point, the battle hasn’t been won either way as far as whether texting is going to take over oratory forever—but you look at even the elections. There’s still something that comes down to how a person can present themselves in front of an audience and I’ll make no predictions about our upcoming election but I bet you it will have a very important role, who is a better orator, during the last few months.