How life’s worst tragedies turn into great speech material

by Carolyn Thomas

I discovered Toastmasters back in 1987 (insert eternal thanks here to my dear friend Peter Forster for dragging me as his guest, kicking and screaming, to my first meeting back then).  I’ve been practicing my public speaking/ listening/ thinking skills during our weekly club meetings every Thursday morning at 7 a.m. ever since, which tells you that Toastmasters is tons o’ fun.

Or, that I’m a slow learner.

A really useful Toastmasters tip that I learned over lo these many years has been how to decide on a really compelling speech topic, including this lesson:  “Life’s worst moments often make the best speech material”.

And that has never been more true than after I survived a heart attack. 

Each of my public presentations on women’s heart health starts off with a brief story of my own heart attack. The operative word there is “brief”, by the way. I’ve noticed that many of us like to go on and on – and on! – when we start on the ever-fascinating minutia of our own latest dramatic health crisis. Trust me on this: few people are actually that interested. Try to make it short and sweet.

Establish credibility!  That’s a Toastmasters tip that helps to explain the main advantage of having a survivor address any public audience listening to a health care topic: this establishes instant credibility. I’m not a health care professional, not a doctor or nurse, but survivors bring something to the lectern that few professionals can: an attention-getting true life personal story that can grab an audience by the lapels and swing them around the room more than most long lists of stats and facts presented by academics and experts. Patients tend to seek out those who are in the same boat, who have walked the talk. When that person is standing up behind the microphone in the same room, it’s a reassuring event.

Talk about what you know! is another wise Toastmasters tip. Or as former Toastmasters International board member Tammy Miller once wrote:*

“The best place to start looking for a speech topic is in the mirror.”

So it really helps that I know my stuff. After my heart attack, I attended the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium for Women With Heart Disease at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.  Since ‘graduating’ from Mayo, I’ve had many terrific opportunities to share with thousands of other people what I learned at this intensive annual training program, including at my signature “Pinot & Prevention” events.

Mayo Clinic’s world-famous reputation has also opened doors and led to speaking invitations that I believe would never have come without the Mayo street cred – particularly to audiences of health care professionals from Cardiology, Mental Health, Emergency Medicine, etc.  So when I talk about emerging research or cardiac news or risk factors or signs you might be having a heart attack, I’m not making this stuff up – merely passing on current information from credible sources.

And of equal importance, I know what I don’t know, and when it’s prudent to caution an audience member to talk to her doctor, pronto.

Use humour. “Part cardiology bootcamp, and part stand-up comedy!” is how one reviewer described my heart health presentations.  I suspect that part of the high hilarity that is the surprising trademark of my talks stems from this cautionary tale: “Do what I say, not what I do!”  I tell of one crazy treatment-seeking delay decision after another as I spent days talking myself out of going back to the same E.R. that had sent me home with an acid reflux misdiagnosis – despite increasingly debilitating cardiac symptoms. By the third or fourth bad decision I describe, my audiences are shaking their heads in disbelief, or laughing out loud, or nodding in tacit recognition of the common (and tragic) tendency of most women to put everything and everybody ahead of ourselves.  Save the funny bits for self-deprecating shots at yourself and not at others, though. Noted American speechwriter Peggy Noonan once offered this advice to public speakers:

“Humour is gracious and shows respect. It shows the audience you think enough of them to want to entertain them.”

Practice! Practice! Practice!    The only way to become a better tennis player is to play tennis more. The only way to become a better golfer is to play golf more. And the only way to become a better public speaker is to speak as often as you possibly can. The Toastmasters public speaking manual teaches that experience builds confidence, which is always  the key to effective speaking. When I’m invited to speak about women’s heart health to the general public, I get to hone my speaking skills on this singular theme, covering my (brief!) story, women’s cardiac risk factors, how to address those risks, and common (or not-so-common) signs of a heart attack. Each presentation itself provides confidence-building speaking experience.

It’s about you, but it’s not JUST about you.  Experienced Toastmasters know that those personal stories are merely illustrations to propel you to the key points of your presentations, and key points should answer the audience’s unspoken question:

“What’s in this for me?”

Now, there are speeches, and then there are speeches.  For some people, telling and re-telling their illness story becomes their identity. They are their diagnosis. Any simple “How are you?” query can result in a detailed and self-absorbed description of every recent symptom, doctor’s visit or diagnostic test result – or, as my Santa Barbara friend Dave calls it: “the organ recital”.

These are the folks who have never likely heard of my family’s classic motto:

“Don’t tell your friend about your indigestion. ‘How are you?’ is a greeting – NOT a question!”

Psychologist Dr. Al Siebert, author of The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life’s Difficulties, examines some interesting differences between survivors.

Every transformational journey is unique, he reminds us, but some survivors remain emotionally wounded for life. They relive and re-experience distressing moments again and again. On the other hand, some survivors recover fairly well with the help of an accommodating family and friends, or appropriate professional help.  See also: Are You a Victim or a Survivor?

Some, however, do more than simply recover, and survivors in this third group have two things in common, according to Dr. Siebert:

  1. They integrate the traumatic experience into their identity and make the experience a defining part of their life story.
  2. They talk or write about the trauma in a way that is helpful to others.

Pre-heart attack, my longtime career in public relations was really the direct beneficiary of all that early Toastmasters public speaking training. PR folks are frequently called upon to represent their organizations when a reporter’s microphone is shoved in your face during a media scrum, or to stand up at management meetings for briefings, or to host televised news conferences, or to deliver after-dinner speeches in what’s known in PR as the rubber chicken circuit of conferences and service club meetings.

And all this think-on-your-feet practice turned out to be really useful training for handling the Q&A portions of my heart presentations to large groups of women with their hands waving in the air at me, all at the same time.

Please note: I do not recommend having a heart attack in order to provide ample speech material. There are many other far less traumatic ways to come up with suitable topics to talk about to a prospective audience.

Finally, like all professional speakers have learned, it’s very important to know when to stop talking.

In the world of Toastmasters public speaking training, we learn that less is always more. Or, in the wise words of iconic William Faulkner, during his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech in 1950:

“When the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, even then there will still be one more sound: that of a puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.”

Don’t ever become that “puny inexhaustible voice”. Know when to shut up and sit down. And as Walt Disney himself advised, it’s best to “always leave them wanting more!”

© 2012 Carolyn Thomas


*  This quote from Tammy Miller’s article appeared in the February 2011 issue of the Toastmaster magazine.


See also:


5 thoughts on “How life’s worst tragedies turn into great speech material

  1. Pingback: CreativitytotheMAX
  2. To: Mental Makeovers – trust me, she speaks as well as she writes and people are always wanting to book her. The girl has class, humour and knowledge, a dynamic combo!

    Liked by 1 person

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