I am an autism specialist. I work with children who have a variety of needs and strengths. My job is to discover what they are good at and what needs attention; to use their strengths to build new skills through joy and encouragement. I enjoy meeting children, connecting with them, figuring out what new skills would most benefit them and then leading them towards learning. I am comfortable in this role. Too many times to count, I cheerfully communicate to the children that I work with the benefits of learning new skills. I reassure and support their attempts at transitions to new environments, their struggles to learn.
So, when it was my turn to learn something new, it was only fair to follow my own advice. I have been happily playing with kids for many years now. All of my work comes from referrals. I never advertised, had a web page or even a business card. I went to conferences and seminars but to learn, not to network. I am comfortable and confident about my work with children. Two years ago, something happened to push me out of my comfort zone.
A brilliant teen, Florida Frenz, wanted to share what we had been doing for the last decade. She had benefited from all the interventions she had received since the age of three, she wished to share her journey and so she wrote a book. She wanted to tell her story but she did not want her life interrupted. Going to high school was demanding enough without the discomfort of walking through the halls of school only to see your classmates holding your book, reading about past challenges. She asked me if she could remain anonymous and if I would be her spokesperson. I agreed.
I probably should tell you now that I suck at public speaking. I get nervous, my palms sweat, and when I start to speak my brain usually decides that it’s a good time to take a vacation. Even in casual conversations I can experience verbal diarrhea. You know, when something undesirable comes out of your mouth but you can’t take it back. It was time for me to take my own advice: start with what you are good at and work on what you need to learn. It is always beneficial to get support from an expert so I asked for advice from others who are skilled at public speaking. I watched videos and read self-help articles. Still, it is difficult to become proficient in something until you actually do it; sometimes you just need to jump in, feet first, and learn from experience.
My first foray into publicity was on Eat, Sleep, Write, a podcast about books and authors. It was an hour long interview. The thought of speaking to a stranger coherently for an hour and having that conversation be recorded for prosperity was terrifying. But I did it.
After that I did a series of radio shows, mostly morning drive time shows and fairly brief. Sometimes the radio host understood who I was and what I was talking about, sometimes they didn’t. I kept my list of bullet points in front of me while I was speaking, trying to find a good place in the conversation to make those points. I found that how successful I felt seemed to depend more on the interviewer rather than any skills that I brought to the interview. Usually I felt that I could have done better. It is an uncomfortable feeling for me to feel less than adequate but I kept repeating to myself the message that I give to my clients: “Trying new things means growth, be kind to yourself and see what you can learn.”
That mantra does help and I was a bit more comfortable when I was asked to do a 40 minute podcast with Talk Radio Canada. It kind of helped that these interviews all occurred far away from where I live. I could fool myself into thinking that no one I knew would ever hear my interviews anyway. The hosts of the show were gracious and skilled at their jobs. They said that I gave a great interview. I don’t know, I haven’t listened to myself.
I have yet to master the art of public speaking. I am still uncomfortable, I often let slip something that is inappropriate or off topic and forget to say what I really believe is important. I have a lot to learn before I can say that I am proficient at communicating with the masses. But I am proud of myself. I am proud that I took myself out of my comfort zone to try something new. More importantly. I feel like I have built a new bridge of understanding with my clients. I can relate to their discomfort, after all, I am learning to live with mine.