Books (people) are always more interesting than their covers

books

I have not posted here in a long time, and honestly I still don’t have the time today, but I know I will miss the opportunity unless I talk about this now.

We are in the middle of the capstone speech round for my classes, the speech to actuate. Several students have impressed me, but a couple stood out today. I offer these stories because of their implications for communication on several levels.

It’s about character

One student is going through class with me for the second time. He passed the first time, but knew he could do better. He impressed me the first time, really, because when he started the semester, it would have been easy to dismiss him as an uninvolved slacker. He read his speeches word-for-word, even though I warned him about the impact on his grade. Standards increase with each speech, but he kept reading despite those warnings, and eventually earned an F thereby.

Many students would have just quit at that point, and I expected him to do so. To his credit, he not only stuck with it, but got the point, and came back with a tremendously better speech.

He’s done better all this semester (although he backslid once), but today he really impressed me.

I must be clear, and this does no insult to him: he’s still a long ways from being a good speaker. It’s simply that he does better when he speaks from the heart, as we all do. So it’s not that I’m impressed with his speaking abilities. Rather, I’m impressed by what I learned about him.

His speech was about father’s rights. What’s the stereotype of a kid straight out of high school who gets his girlfriend pregnant? Avoiding responsibility? Trying to get out of it? Not this guy. The summer right after graduating high school, he learned  he had fathered a child. He was uninvolved with his daughter for the first 7 1/2 months, but that was only because it took him that long to save up the money for a lawyer. He wanted to be involved with that child.

What do you think most guys that age hope will come from the paternity test? “Not mine,” right? But he pursued one in order to prove he was the father, so he could get a judge to order his access.

So here’s a young guy now going to college so he can make a better living and provide for his daughter, whom he says is the best thing to ever happen to him. This isn’t even about the old value of “manning up” and taking responsibility. He just has his priorities straight.

I am humbled and honored in his presence.

Making a difference out of pain

The other student is a bit of an enigma to me. I’m not sure he ever talks except to give his speeches. He has a strong voice, and his delivery has really clicked the last couple of speeches, except that he doesn’t really make much eye contact. There’s a flow and an organization to his speeches that is almost literary, but he doesn’t sound like he’s reading it.

The cover on this book, in other words, is a bit mysterious.

I listen to roughly 100 speeches to actuate each semester. (If the term is unfamiliar, it’s the ultimate persuasive speech–the aim of which is to get audience members to commit to, and actually take, a specific action.) I’ve been doing this in the current form for 23 years. Roughly 5,500 speeches to actuate (including summers). It’s honestly a little hard to move me anymore.

But he told us the story of his sister’s struggles with a serious disease. Clearly organized, concrete in his descriptions, strongly voiced. And yet, I didn’t see it coming.

He said, “And then she died.” And paused, a long pause, one in which the class was completely focused on him. His voice wavered, but he held it together to talk about the nature of cystic fibrosis, the research into it, the historical development of treatment, the class following him every logical and emotional step of the path. Then he talked about his sister again, who passed away only four months ago at age 26, a month or so before this semester began. And he asked us to take out our calendars and mark a date six months in the future to take part in a walk to raise funds for cystic fibrosis research.

It’s hard to get students to do something next week, much less in six months. But I saw cell phones coming out all over the classroom, people marking dates in their calendars. I was one of them.

He demonstrated the power of public speaking to move audiences in a way no other form can do so well. He also demonstrated one of the foundations of what makes that work: he took a risk in putting something before an audience that he cared dearly about.

I celebrate both of these young speakers, and I wish them both well beyond whatever skills they pick up in my class. I am honored to have been allowed to see just a little bit beyond their covers.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.