President Teddy Roosevelt once said, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He was referring to diplomatic relations with foreign countries but it applies to us in our everyday life. However, whether or not you feel the need to carry a stick, there’s one very important occasion when speaking softly just doesn’t do the job. And that’s when we’re speaking in public.
Why do some people stand up in front of a group with lots to say that’s important for their listeners to hear, but the speaker’s volume is permanently turned down to low? Especially if you’re in a relatively intimate situation, say a private room in a restaurant or a small conference room, where there really isn’t any need for a microphone. If you’re sitting more than 3 or 4 feet from the speaker, you can hardly hear what he’s saying. If someone raises a hand or calls out that she can’t hear and would the presenter please speak louder, he only complies for a few words, and then goes right back to his just above a whisper level. Why doesn’t the speaker speak louder, especially after being asked to speak up?
Believe it or not, he probably doesn’t realize he can’t be heard. He’s so busy focusing on just getting through it that he’s not thinking about the audience at all. It’s a very common problem for folks who believe, “They’re going to judge me and I’m going to fail,” or “They’re not going to be interested in what I have to say,” or “I really don’t want to do this, but I have to for my job, so I’ll just get it over with.” These are just a few reasons why some people can’t seem to speak loud enough to be heard. They’re convinced that what they have to say will not come out right or have no merit.
Where does fear like this come from? Usually something in the speaker’s past that he may or may not even remember. Maybe he grew up in a family where every time he expressed his own thoughts, someone criticized him or told him to be quiet and let his elders speak. Maybe he was constantly compared to a sibling who was smarter, more articulate, funnier, the obvious favorite of the household. Never receiving praise or a pat on the back for the things he thought or said as a child can make an adult feel inadequate and incompetent. Being laughed at for speaking your mind, at home or in school, can leave lasting feelings of humiliation.
What’s interesting about the human psyche is that, as adults, we often have no memory of those uncomfortable times when we felt judged, teased or put down, but the feelings remain with us. The minute we put ourselves out there in front of people, up those feelings come to make us feel scared and not good enough to be a success at the job of delivering our talk. When a speaker talks too softly to be heard, it may be because he’s afraid you’ll judge him harshly. He feels deep inside that he’s not as good as he’d like to be. He’s so afraid of what you’re thinking about him that he’s trying to minimize his presence in front of you. If he speaks quietly, maybe you won’t notice what a lousy person he is.
Of course, we in the audience see none of those things. We want the speaker to speak up because, far from judging him, we waconftablent to benefit from what he has to say. We want to receive the gift of his knowledge and experience, whether he’s giving us a 60-second bio or a 30-minute lecture. We want to learn from him. We want to leave the room knowing more about his subject than we did when we came in.
It’s a myth that the audience is waiting to throw rotten tomatoes at you when you get up to speak. The truth is they want to learn from you, to get the benefit of the many years you’ve spent perfecting your knowledge and ability. They want you to pass your gift on to them. But the only way they can receive it is if you let yourself be heard!