Public Speaking Lessons from a Rulebreaker

This is a story about heart and soul, public speaking, and doing what scares you.

Last Friday, I attended the InnovateBC Non-Profit Partnerships Summit, which is a bit of a mouthful. I went because I was impressed by the lineup of speakers, and by the theme of the conference, which was collaboration and cooperation between government, non-profits, business and funders. Turns out there weren’t many people there from the business community, but apart from that, the crowd was fairly diverse and definitely interesting.

I’m not going to write about all the clever things I heard from the stage, though. Instead I want to talk about the impact one particular speaker had on me.

Paul Lacerte, the Executive Director of the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, spoke as part of a “panel” (that’s the term the conference organizers used, but really it was a series of short talks on a common theme), so his time at the mic was limited, but he did three things that made my heart sing – and that scared the pants off me:

  • He invoked the sacred, right off the bat. (Way to transgress Canadian politesse-oblige.) He opened with, “I want to talk about ceremony,” and he proceeded to talk about the importance of collective ritual, about 4-day fasts on sacred land – about his beliefs and traditions.
  • He brought everyone in the room in touch with their hearts and bodies (i.e. forced us to stop acting like disembodied heads), by reminding us that we were all connected, literally, through the shared air molecules we’d been breathing in and out all day. The guy next to me joked that he wanted to stop breathing after that, presumably because the thought of sharing air with everyone was triggering his germ-ophobia, or pushing his intimacy buttons. ‘Nuff said.
  • He cried onstage. (Every speaker’s worst nightmare, right? Wrong.) Paul choked up while telling a story about his son, and I could feel the crowd lean forward, feeling with him. Tears aren’t always easy to see in a stranger’s eyes – they can make us uncomfortable and embarrassed. This time, though, I just felt privileged to see a father so full of pride and love.
  • He made people take a pledge. (Cheeky.) After speaking about domestic violence, he asked all the men in the room to stand up and promise to be “good uncles” to the young men in their lives, teaching them about treating women with respect and calling them out for unacceptable behaviour.

Each of these acts took courage and chutzpah. In a big, soulless conference room in a big, soulless convention centre, Paul insisted on calling our souls forth, engaging our hearts and bodies as well as our minds. I spoke to him afterwards and he told me he didn’t know any other way to be – “I’m used to working in Indian country, where everything, everything is personal, you know?” I get that, but I still think it’s courageous to get up onstage and follow your own path, in a context where you know you are not following convention.

It’s made me more determined to wear my heart on my sleeve more often when I’m writing and speaking. The worst that can happen is that some people stop listening because you’re no longer singing their tune. But in the best-case scenario, you can connect and transform at a more powerful, integrated level, and that’s sheer magic.

Thanks, Paul, for the lesson.