Some of you may think that I love the sound of my own voice but you couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s one thing to chat with someone else one-to-one, or with a small group of friends, but a wider audience? Nope, I’m not comfortable in that.
Firstly, I hate the sound of my own voice. I once bought a tape recorder and when I played back a short recording I was horrified. Surely I don’t sound like that? But, there was no denying that Cork accent: it was definitely me.
At one point back in the late 1960s, early 1970s, I joined the Cork Junior Speakers Club. It was an offshoot of the then popular Cork Speakers Club. Quite why I joined I haven’t a clue. I lacked the confidence needed for public speaking, and I think I joined more for the opportunity to meet other teenagers – for that’s who the members consisted of – particularly a lovely bunch of secondary students from a Bandon girls school. I was as lost for words with them as I was when it came to the debates themselves.
I became a little better as time went on, but people know a spoofer when they hear one. When you ooze confidence in the words you utter it’s easy to command an audience. Ensuring those spoken words aren’t peppered with “ehm” and “errs,” or ghastly silences while you struggle for words that suddenly elude you, all while rivers of sweat trickle down your neck, well, nothing ever came easy to me.
I’ve always been better at writing words rather that enunciating them. At least you can put those words in the order that make more sense. You can avoid repeating yourself, replace inadequate words with better ones, delete poor sentences, move paragraphs around. In other words you can polish it to within an inch of its life and sound like you know what you’re talking about.
Speaking off the cuff, however, presents a lot of challenges. You trip over words, add others that are either superfluous, or inexcusable. You forget facts, or mention the wrong ones. You try to make jokes and they fall flat. Worse, your train of thought runs into a cul de sac and you can’t find your way out. I’ve been there. Too many times.
Sometimes you’re lucky. I was in Galway at a conference once and had to make a speech. I hadn’t prepared anything, but I started off with what I hoped was a joke and everyone laughed. Phew! That broke the ice and I went on to make a good stab at a speech.
I’m still not a great speaker, but sometimes you can surprise yourself. I chaired a meeting once where I made a short speech to introduce the only speaker. She stood up and spoke eloquently – and sat down after 10 minutes. We were only 12 minutes, if that, into the evening, and the audience was clearly expecting – like myself – that this was a little early for the evening to end. So I did a bit of fast thinking, stood up, spoke for 30 minutes, and we had a super Q&A session afterwards. I don’t know how I managed it.
The hardest speeches are when the father of the bride or groom has to speak at weddings. Striking the right balance between playful recollections of funny if embarrassing incidents in their lives and saying how much you loved them can sometimes border on the bizarre to the awful. I was witness to one such effort, surprisingly by a really good speaker, who just got the balance completely wrong. The very, very long speech fell flat, his daughter was embarrassed, and so were the guests. I swore that I would never do that.
I think I did ok. I elected to read the speeches which, on reflection, wasn’t a good idea. I should have kept it shorter, said how much I loved them, made one joke, and left it at that. It’s easy to be wiser after the event, but at least the speeches weren’t embarrassing. By the way, some of the speeches at those two weddings were very funny and brilliantly executed.
I wrote and delivered eulogies at the funerals of my grandmother Sarah and aunt Betty. I still have a copy of Sarah’s because it was published by the diocesan magazine afterwards. My favourite was one I did for mum’s funeral. It was perhaps a shade long, and was written after I had dashed home from New York after she died suddenly. I wrote it very quickly and naturally. I was cleaning up my desk recently and found a copy of it. I read it without falling over the words, and only became emotional at the very end.
I’m glad it was typed up before me that day in the church for I doubt I would have found the right words to say how much I loved and missed her. Certainly not before an audience of family and friends.
Incidentally, it was my daughter Sarah Jane’s wedding anniversary yesterday, two years after a brilliant wedding, one of the happiest days in my life.