Just Because You Can’t Sing…

Meryl Steep will star in a movie entitled “Florence,” the story of the ridiculously awful yet famous opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins. Reading this reminded me of one of my favorite quotations from her. It applies to speaking as well as any endeavor we fear to attempt. She said, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

I wonder how many would-be speakers avoid the platform because they may be awful. I would rather be able to say, “People may say I can’t speak, but no one can ever say I didn’t speak.”  I’ve heard some pretty awful speakers who still had powerful messages.

One of my favorite examples is author and philosopher Eric Hoffer. He is best known for his book, The True Believer. He was popular on college campuses in the late sixties, and I heard him speak on the campus of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

Let me be blunt:  He was a terrible speaker. He was the “poster child” for all the bad habits I warn against.

  • He leaned on the lectern throughout his presentation.
  • He had no enthusiasm in his delivery.
  • His dress was that of a longshoreman, not at all like the dressy attire of many of the audience members.
  • He rambled with no main idea in sight and no structure to his material.

Yet when he finished he received a standing ovation! The audience would not let him leave the lectern. They continued to ask questions and encouraged him to continue. Even though he was a terrible speaker, his ideas were thought-provoking and original. He spoke from a point of view new to many of us and he did so with narratives we could not resist listening to.

If you are uncertain about your speaking skills, I urge you:  Just speak! Give your opinion at the next board meeting. Share your ideas at the monthly departmental debriefing. You may not be a great speaker, but your ideas are valuable and need to be heard. An audience can overlook mediocrity when the speaker has something to say.

Don’t misunderstand; I certainly want all of us to keep improving our speaking skills. If you have a message that needs to be heard, however, don’t let your lack of skills keep you from being heard.

Remember what Florence Foster Jenkins said, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”  Give speaking your best effort—or whatever your new endeavor might be. Don’t let it be said that you never tried.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at steveboyd111@gmail.com.

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