Did Shakespeare Destroy Your Public Speaking Confidence?
Jul 13, 2020
"Oh God, I HATED Shakespeare in school."
This is the reaction I get from 90% of my public speaking clients when they learn that, before I was a public speaking coach, I taught Shakespeare performance at an Elementary/Middle School.
I didn't think much of it the first couple times a client said this.
After all, Shakespeare isn't everybody's cup of tea.
But after 5 or 6 clients said that exact phrase to me, I started to get curious...
Why was hating Shakespeare such a common experience among my public speaking clients?
I had a blind-spot.
The kiddos I taught loved Shakespeare.
The group of rambunctious third graders I'd recently worked with got to spend an hour pretending to be witches, dressing up in crazy costumes, and thwacking each other with foam swords.
I mean, what wasn't to love?
What was different between my students' experience with Shakespeare and my adult clients' experiences?
And while we were on the subject:
Why was my experience with Shakespeare so wildly different than my clients'?
So, I thought back to my very first encounter with Shakespeare.
It was not in a high school English class.
It was in second grade, on what was quite literally "a dark and stormy night", when my mom invented a bizarre family tradition:
Anytime there was a power outage, we would light an old-timey oil lantern and my family would read a Shakespeare play out loud.
It was always a low-pressure and goofy affair. My dad did silly voices regardless of if it was a tragedy or a comedy.
I didn't know what most the words meant, but I had a ball sounding them out and delivering them with GREAT conviction.
(Ahh, the warning signs of a budding public speaking coach...)
I didn't realize till I was in high school that this was not how everyone spent their power outages...
And it wasn't till much later that I realized how deeply this silly tradition actually influenced how I operated in the world.
It meant that my earliest associations with Shakespeare were that it was fun and silly.
And, perhaps most importantly, I learned that I could participate and engage with the material even if I didn't understand all the words yet.
This, I've learned, is sadly the opposite experience most my clients had in school when they first encountered Shakespeare.
Most kids experience it as boring, stuffy, and intimidating.
It's not a playful experience.
In fact, it can be downright anxiety-provoking.
Because, by high school, most of us feel like if we can't understand the language we're reading, we must be stupid.
No wonder my public speaking clients hated Shakespeare in school.
They were forced to stand in front of their class reading language they didn't understand, terrified with each sentence that they would humiliate themselves in front of their peers.
What could shatter your confidence as a public speaker faster?
I don't think it's a coincidence that so many of the folks that come to me with severe performance anxiety had experiences like this growing up.
This is what happens when we remove play from the learning experience.
Not because I think public speaking skills are frivolous--just the opposite.
Because I know that you cannot become a better speaker by bearing down, tensing up, or waiting to speak up until you know all the answers.
If you're serious about improving your communication skills, then you need to start taking yourself a little less seriously.
So, grab a foam sword and start trying things.
Photo by Jessica Osber.