Giving Voice: Public Speaking as a Core Ritual Skill
Speaking before an audience is terrifying for many people. In fact, surveys indicate that many fear public speaking more than death itself.
However, for ritualists, speaking confidently before a group of listeners is a core skill that enables clear communication, evocation of emotion, and establishment of leadership credibility which provokes a sense of safety and confidence in the ritual proceedings on the part of participants.
As a ritual leader—and remember, in Atheopaganism there is no priesthood, anyone can be a ritual leader—your spoken voice is perhaps your most powerful tool for moving participants into ritual space and common purpose. As a participant, it is sure to be called upon at times, to invoke the Qualities that you hope to bring into the circle, or to express your Gratitudes for good things in your life. And in community, in or out of circle, speaking your truth is essential: it is how we remain truly with one another. As feminist Maggie Kuhn has it, “speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”
I am fortunate in that public speaking has always been easy for me; I know that for many, it is a tremendous challenge. Here are some pointers that I hope can help you to be a more effective ritual and community speaker:
- If at all possible—that is, unless the wording has to be exact for some reason—do not attempt to memorize a speech. There is too much that can go wrong with a memorized speech; either you can lose track and forget the next part of what you are saying, or the presentation can appear wooden and lifeless because you are regurgitating something from memory and focusing on recall rather than connecting with your audience. Short passages are okay for memorization, but it is much better to work from a short set of talking points, and speaking spontaneously about each of these. The talking points can be memorized, or you can keep a small card in your hand listing them as a reminder. A poem or quotation may be read from paper, but it’s much better to read from a book or binder, as loose pages can flop all over the place.
- If you have too much material to be summarized by a brief set of talking points, consider having more than one person deliver it. Variety helps listeners to maintain focus, anyway, and it’s much better to have two people speaking from talking points than one reading from pages.
- Other than as noted above, don’t read a speech from paper or cue cards. This is the surest way to kill the energy of a ritual circle. Reading from a page can appear flat and devitalized, and under low light conditions, readers are sure to stumble over written text. The alternative is that you are juggling a flashlight along with pages of text, and the flow and confidence that are necessary for ritual leadership just become impossible. Staring at a page prevents connection with listeners, and is an immediate boredom cue for them. A key part of what establishes leadership is the sense on the part of participants that you are confident in yourself and what you are saying.
- Practice. If you are not confident in your public speaking abilities, practice speaking from your talking points until you feel better about what you will present. The speech doesn’t have to come out the same way every time; after all, the listeners don’t even know what the talking points are. Practicing before a mirror will help you with confident posture and looking (yourself) in the eye while speaking.
- Speak to your audience. Look them in the eye! Connecting with listeners is the surest way for them to know that your words are sincere and are meant for them. Think of your speech as a conversation: the attention and feedback you get from listeners is their “response”. And feel free to ask questions in case you’re explaining something that may not be clear.
- If you make a mistake, carry on. Everyone makes mistakes. You can make a joke about it, or just keep going.
- Do relaxing exercises before you need to speak. Take some deep breaths. Remind yourself that you know how to do this, that you have what it takes. Ground. Be in your body and ready to step forward in confidence.
- Try to minimize dry, logistical details in circle speech. Ritual circle is for ritual, not telling people where the bathrooms are and other uninteresting details. To communicate such things, have greeters at your event that explain them, rather than leaving it to a ritual leader to communicate them.
- Learn to project your voice. Particularly for women (as higher-pitched voices tend not to carry as far), this is essential for any but the smallest ritual contexts. Learn to tell the difference between projection (speaking from the diaphragm) and yelling (speaking loudly through the vocal chords, which strains the voice quickly). Here is a page with exercises to learn to project your voice.
- Emotion is good. Listeners want to see your passion for the subject. Show them.
- Remember: listeners in ritual circle are on your side! They’re not there to criticize you or find fault with your presentation; they want to go where you want to lead them. Think of yourself as among friends when speaking in circle.
The ritual circle is intended as a safe container. When we draw the circle around us, it is to say that what happens within happens in a context of trust, cooperation and amicability. Your speech does not have to be perfect to be great, and to be effective.
Our abilities with language are a major element of what makes us unique as humans. We are able to communicate complex and subtle ideas and emotions through the power of the voice. Claim yours as an essential component of your power: your rituals and your community will be the stronger for it.