I used to be very shy. Whenever I tried to speak to a group of people I’d get flushed and start shaking and sweating. My vocal chords would squeeze shut and my voice would come out in a squeak. And I would forget anything I was about to say, even a piece that I knew well or even memorized.
On oral report days at school I would stay home and take the bad grade.
And then, by a fluke, I was elected leader of a small women’s group. “No, no, no!” I protested in panic. “I can’t do this!” They smiled and patted my quivering hands. “You’ll be fine,” they said.
The first meeting was excruciating. I was to give a short devotional lesson and I’d prepared. I knew my subject. I’d brought my notes. Everyone waited expectantly. I opened my mouth… and squeaked. They smiled and nodded. I squeaked again, and then managed a few words. Another squeak and a few more words. And then, thank heavens, it was over.
I tried to quit a dozen times, but they wouldn’t let me.
Gradually I stopped squeaking. Then one day I realized I was having fun. What happened? What had changed abject terror into exhilaration? Then it hit me.
I’d changed my format from talking to asking a few questions. I’d put some of the pressure to communicate on the others. Nicely – of course – and with genuine interest in their answers, but nevertheless, requiring them to respond, to talk. Instead of me.
Yes, I prepared questions (along with my research on the topic), and yes, those questions led to the point or lesson I wanted to make, but they were doing the talking and I was doing the listening.
It was an epiphany. I could lead a group (or talk to an important individual) by posing prepared questions.
(Do you see where this is going?)
I also discovered I’m nosey. Not so much about my group of ladies, but about everyone. Why do people act and speak they way they do? What motivates them? What makes them mad? Sad? Hurt or lonely? What do they do for a living? How did they get started in that job or hobby? Why are they getting a divorce? A tattoo? A facelift?
So I ask people questions and I take notes. Then I compile the answers into an article or story and submit it for publication. Voila! An interview! A profile!
Most people want to tell their story (especially celebrities), and some will tell you anything, if you promise not to print it.
(Confession: Sometimes in an interview I ask questions I’m personally curious about but never plan
to put in the story. Oh, the things I could tell you!)
That’s how – when they were filming the TV series “Sons of Anarchy” in front of my house – I could walk up to Ron Perlman and talk to him like he was my “Uncle Fred.”
Piece o’ cake!
Re-posted from my Writers in Residence blog, August 2009