To Speak or not to Speak
From asking a question to giving a presentation to Prix Richard Descoings, the fear of speaking never leaves. The finalist of Richard Descoings shares his fear of speaking and his speech about fearing.
I stood against the blinding darkness. My words precipitated at the tip of my tongue. All things froze for an instant before my speech as I took in the deafening silence.
I was in the Theatre Auditorium de Poitiers, which sits 1000 people. It was the final round of the Prix Richard Descoings. I carried with my every word the reputation of Le Havre.
Every February, Sciences Po undergraduates gather together for the Prix Richard Descoings, an oratory competition to select the most eloquent English and French speaker from Sciences Po. I took part in the English category while Salomé Cassarino represented the French category.
Predictably, someone who made it past two rounds of a public speaking tournament would be perfectly comfortable on a stage and under the spotlight. I am not. The fear of speaking is perhaps the most understated fear in modern society.
This fear is silent: it is the unsaid words that built up in my lungs. It is the scrutinising eye contact of those looking, the prolonged silence before speaking, the deoxygenated air breathing. It was this fear that I carried from Le Havre to Poitiers – a fear that grew with the stakes.
In the waiting room on D-day, it was this fear that united the speakers from each campus - each clutching their script and pacing in quiet momentum. When asked, each would tell you that they are not nervous, and you would believe them. After all, they are representatives of eloquence. Yet, as the clock ticks and each speaker’s turn to speak approaches, you will see the little droplets of sweat forming at the fringe of their foreheads.
The fear of speaking is perfectly normal. Receiving the prompt: “we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy,” a quote by J. K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I decided to speak about speaking itself. I decided that the steps that led me to Richard Descoings were all choices I made between what is right and what is easy. Here, I share that choice, that fear, and that speech:
“To speak, or not to speak, that is the question. When I open my mouth, and these words flow into your ears, in this particular order, every syllable, every movement of my lips, my tongue, every eye contact, every molecule in my body is making a choice.
You see, we are not just atoms. Words are not chemical reactions. Standing up here is not part of natural selection.
To speak is to put my life story up on the podium, where I can no longer control the reaction, the interpretation, the direction of where and how I want to hear – me. My story is my choice, but when I speak, I give this choice to you: to be silent, to clap, to laugh, to mock, to ridicule, to open your ears but not listen.
To speak is a choice. But, to speak is the 11-year-old me sitting in my class, with my teacher asking: “do you have any questions?”, and my thoughts formulating, my palms sweating, my arm not raising, my heart beat racing. I wanted to ask a simple question…but I could see the audience, the microphone that amplifies my imperfections, the spot-light of failures, the stage of my fear. All on me as I stood up and asked one…simple...question. And it was always this one…simple…question, that I rehearsed in my head, over and over again, and perfected in the exact same intonation that echoes but will never be heard. And the class is over. And I keep this question for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Because speaking is a choice…but is it really for the ones who can’t be heard?
At 16 years old, I had to give my first class presentation. I knew I must face the choice between what is right and what is easy. At least now, questions could be whispered in tiny pockets of mid-air suspended confidence, before it deflates like a balloon, as my face reddens, when my teacher says: “wow, that is a stupid question.” How then am I supposed to hear nothing but the silence of my voice for 300 seconds? How am I supposed to hear myself when I can only hear you and your loud mental judgement as I stammer...as I stammer…as I stammer…as I stammer…as I stammer? How can you say speaking is a choice when I don’t have the choice to be heard?
At 21 years old, I made a choice between what is right and what is easy. I joined a competition and it is my first time speaking to more people than in a classroom. I listened to hours and hours of “I have a dream” and watched myself in the mirror, until fear was so used to being in my veins that when my mouth finally opened, fear flew out like a butterfly ready to escape from a cocoon. I am still the 11-year-old with my thoughts formulating, my palms sweating, my heart beat racing. I am still the 16-year-old with mid-air suspended confidence in a tiny pocket of 5 minutes, before it deflates like a balloon, again.
You see, when I open my mouth, and these words flow into your ears, in this particular order, from beginning to end, from end to beginning again, every syllable, every movement of my lips my tongue, every eye contact, every molecule in my body is making a choice that is anything but easy.
We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy. And today, I choose, to speak.”
To speak or not to speak? The answer is yours.
Edited by Philippe Bédos & Maya Shenoy