Guest post by M. Quentin Williams.
My first public speech was in the sixth grade.
Well, that’s not completely accurate.
I had spoken publicly in front of audiences prior to the sixth grade, but never before had I been at risk of being criticized by the audiences to whom I spoke. Those earlier talks were in front of “friendly” groups comprised of family members and friends – that is, “non-hostile” people.
But this one speech in the sixth grade was different – no family members and very few friends were in attendance and the risk of criticism weighed heavily on all of the candidates, including me.
I was running for Vice President of my middle school’s Student Government and all of the candidates were scheduled to address the entire student body. Give a speech and then wait for the votes to be tabulated. The results of the election were heavily dependent on the manner in which the candidates presented to the crowd.
This all took place at Emerson Middle School in Yonkers, New York. The school has been renamed. Back then, Emerson was a 6th through 8th grade middle school, so I was one of the younger students – a mere 6th grader.
There were two assemblies scheduled for the candidates. The auditorium could only accommodate half of the student body at any one given time so the administration split up the students – 8th graders attended the first assembly, 6th and 7th graders attended the other.
During my repeat speeches on that day in the Fall of 1976, I told the students a story. I told the students a story about my hopes and dreams for my fellow students – my life’s aspirations and goals. I told them that I would fight for them…give them a voice…provide them with opportunity. I was eleven years old.
Battling poverty as a young child force fed me a vivid imagination. I accepted this imagination as a distraction from my literal hunger at times. That hunger made me hungry for a better life, and fantasy thoughts through escapism provided a much-needed distraction from my everyday reality.
Above all, achieving justice, serenity and success as established by societal standards was what I envisioned for myself and our society.
And the stories associated with that journey were important to me.
That sixth grade speech got me elected President of my Emerson Middle School’s Student Body. After my election, the school’s administration changed the rules to close the loophole that allowed me – a 6th grader – to win the Presidency when, in fact, I had only campaigned to be the VICE President.
Up until then, the candidate with the most votes was selected to be the President…second most votes was selected to be the Vice President…and so on. That speech, and the story that I told the students, garnered my campaign the most votes of any candidate, so I was handed the top spot.
I firmly believe that I won the Presidency on that day because, at a young age, I learned how to articulate real-life stories to anyone who listened – stories that offered hope. I recognized that these stories allowed people to connect to their dreams, their aspirations and their visions of a better life.
Storytelling is perhaps the most important instrument that a speaker can utilize when assembling a connection to others. And allowing those stories to offer tools for life’s journey creates an engaging experience – sometimes even life-altering – for those in attendance.
As a speaker, allow your inner genius and message to surface one story at a time. When done properly, the impact can be profound.
I am thankful that I learned that important lesson on that special day in the Fall of 1976.