“Be silent, or say something better than silence”.
“Proper words in proper places make the true definition of a style.” Jonathan Swift
Here is the story of a man who went from silence to absolute wonderful speaking style. This is the story of James Earl Jones journey of courage, persistence and how facing his fear of failure and rejection was turned into fame and excellence as a public speaker and performer –an excellent actor.
Many of us allow our fear of failure and humiliation to stop us from doing things in life. We have the abilities and skills but for some reason under pressure are overwhelmed by fear and thoughts of doubt. These buttons of anxiety are put in us by ourselves or others; these triggers when present stop us from performing at our best. All that has to happen is for us see or hear their voices and we stop trying and get stuck. For example, some speakers fall apart when they experience criticism, a negative facial expression, or a less than positive opinion, and we give up before we even get started. We’re afraid of:
• the disapproving look of others because it means rejection
• the whispers and grins because they mean judgment, and
• the absence of support because it means abandonment
Let’s look at these three triggers in relationship to James Earl Jones story of failure to even try to speak or if he did stuttering was the result.
Little James Earl was scared. His father had left the family to become a prize-fighter and actor. His mother had left to earn money as a tailor. The Great Depression had stolen his family and he was about to lose the only life he had ever known. So he remained silent and mute for many of the early developmental years he lived with his adopted grandparents.
Through these early days of abandonment and harsh treatment from his grandparents he was afraid and traumatized so as a defense he developed a stutter.
His first day of school was a disaster. His stuttering made his classmates laugh at him. It was the final straw for a frightened little boy. He closed his mouth and simply quit talking… for eight years!
James Earl was completely mute – with the exception of conversations he had with himself when he was all alone. He found solace in the written word – creating poetry to release the raging in his soul.
As is often the case, one person who saw beyond his limitations released James Earl from his self-imposed prison. That one person who believed in him was an English teacher who saw talent and potential in the silent 13-year-old. She pushed him beyond his fear by forcing him into public speaking – insisting he recite a poem in front of the class every day. Can’t you imagine his terror when he first stood in front of his classmates? What made him do it? Was it only the teacher’s insistence? No. It was a deep desire to break free from his prison and speak all the things that had sat silently in his heart during all those years. He chose to face and lean-in to the fear – and then recite his daily anyway!
He stuttered. He stammered. He endured the scornful looks of fellow students. He endured the laughing. But he continued to do it. He faced the fear and forced himself to speak. Day after day. Week after week. He hung onto the encouragement of the teacher who believed in him. And it worked. His stuttering became less.
He learned to control his voice. His victories made him look for more challenges. James Earl began to take acting lessons. His early lessons in perseverance and deliberative practice gave him the courage to push beyond the prejudices against black actors. He chose to take as many different types of roles as he could – stretching his limitations and refusing to let fear control him.
James Earl Jones is now known for his deep authoritative and penetrating voice. Perhaps you know him as the voice of Star War’s Darth Vader or as Mufasa in the Lion King. You see him almost daily on commercials. He has starred on Broadway and been in many movies. He has been the recipient of many distinguished honors and awards– the Tony, Emmy and many others.
People look at him today and see a confident actor with a deep, resonant voice. The next time you become nervous or fearful of presenting in front of others remember James Earl Jones because this may push to stretch your talents and successful performances.
My hypothesis of why James Earl Jones’ succeed in public speaking is that he chose to push beyond his fears or learned to accept these fears and just kept presenting. He chose to change the reality of a young boy who had lived in silence for eight years. He chose to face ridicule and humiliation in order to grow and develop into his full potential.
So many of us let our fears stop us. We’re afraid of how we will appear and what others will say and think about us. We’re afraid so we limit our development and possibilities for success. We exchange fear for failure. We don’t believe our fear can be conquered or just accepted. Fear will fade away in the face of acceptance, deliberative practice, persistence and construction action.
So what does this tender and emotional story have to do with the rational world of business and you becoming a more effective speaker? In two words: acceptance and courage. If we can’t confront our fears of communicating with others we probably have no hope of being a successful leader. Many people make decisions about us every day by the way we do or don’t communicate. Neurological research shows that many—if not most—of our so-called rational decisions are actually driven by our emotions. So we tell a story if we want to communicate in a way that captures peoples’ curiosity and imagination, connects with them at a deeply emotional level, is persuasive and leads to the behaviors we desire. For years he refused to speak more than a few words at a time, even to his family. In school he pretended to be mute, and communicated only in writing. He began to express himself by writing poetry.
” In high school a sympathetic teacher named Donald Crouch saw through Jones’s insecurity. He challenged each student in the class to write a poem. Jones found inspiration in the citrus fruit the federal government had distributed in the area to relieve wartime shortages. When he turned in an “Ode to Grapefruit,” written in the epic meter of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” the teacher pretended to believe that Jones could not have written the poem himself, and challenged him to prove it by reciting it front of the class. With his own verses committed to memory, Jones found he could speak without stuttering. Crouch encouraged Jones to compete in high-school debates and oratorical contests. One happy day in his senior year, he won both a public-speaking contest and a scholarship to the University of Michigan. “
Wow!!! What a story when was the last time you tackled a personal weakness and over came your fears?