I will always remember in March 1983 when I started my new job half at the university (then a poly of course) and half in Probation as I returned to work after four months off with testicular cancer. I beat that one! I gave my first ever lecture on juvenile justice. I was nervous, I was over prepared, I forgot I’d specialised in juvenile justice as a practitioner, and wondered whether I had made the right decision on my new career. As I arrived, loaded down with my overhead slides and material on a flip chart and enough notes for 10 hours of lectures, i soon realised it was school holidays as a small number of children were in evidence being settled in with drawing implements and other play material. There was also a dog yapping at my heels, I was not happy with this. As it was 12 noon a number were eating and drinking and yet others were smoking, a pet hate then as now. But the final part of this scene was the least expected. As I started to speak a number of women got out their knitting. I am not joking. They claimed, when I asked, it helped them concentrate but how they took notes did bemuse me. And after two hours, amid, warily watching the dog, and speaking over the click click of needles and with a sore throat from the smoke, I had lost my first day nerves and done my first lecture.
On Friday I gave what I think will be my last speech this time to a trade union conference, in a trade union-owned hotel, I have no plans to do another. 36 years on I have spoken in a public arena for the last time. I was arguably, and strangely more nervous than I had ever been. It is interesting to reflect on the changes and the continuity. Firstly the changes – there were no dogs, children, smoking, eating or knitting. One by one they had been banned over the years or in the case of knitting gone out of fashion. Food only appears if it is an after dinner speech of which I have done a few. But as the name implies food is usually finished though the wine tends to flow ever more frequently. They could be hard audiences to please, tolerance levels lowered exponentially by the degree of wine consumption. The exception would be evening teaching in Hong Kong where students would come straight from work and bring their food with them. The smell was always wonderfully distracting.
Gone are overhead slides, flip charts and with new technology you just have your laptop and your PowerPoint presentation. People still give speeches with just written notes but I have always felt the power point helps me keep on track, gives the audience something to look at and when preparing can tell me when I have the format of the input sorted. Confidence springs from knowing it will get me to the end. Much of the detail comes spontaneously as I try and bring the input alive.
So why was I nervous? Well it was a small, friendly audience and I was welcomed. But I have come to realise that the buzz of public experiences has been challenged by the reality of day-to-day living. I had warned the organisers I might not make it explaining my health was not so robust. Indeed though travelling down the night before I was ill at dinner and consequently arrived at the venue the following day with no food inside me. I thought if I had time I could get the hotel to rustle up a sandwich but once there you are greeted and taken to your seat. I had decided I could no longer reliably stand whilst delivering the input and found this meant some reorganisation of the laptop and the seating arrangements. It soon got to 10 and the first speaker was on. There were some sweets on the table so I improvised breakfast sucking on some small sherbets, the sugar hopefully providing me with the energy to get through. And then I was on.
I was given a fulsome introduction and then I started. I explained why I was sitting down, got a joke in about it and suddenly I was away. I was not necessarily at my best but some of the old skills re-emerged spontaneously. The presentation helped as it gave me the structure and I was able to improvise, even the jokes, never planned but thought up spontaneously, got a laugh. I planned to get in a reference to an ex-student of mine from the 1980s who I had met briefly on arrival and at the moment of this reference I looked up to see him with his eyes closed, a gift which went well with the audience.
I think it went well overall and there were some interesting and engaging questions. The adrenalin of speaking got me away from my nerves and it was an enjoyable last speech. But if I look at the experience in the round it is time to stand down before something goes badly wrong. It’s just a fact that I am no longer a reliable bet as a speaker so another door closes. I have loved this aspect of my life both lecturing to students and then speaking at local, national and international events. There have been nervy moments for example in Singapore, when talking to prison service personnel, about 200 strong and realising I needed the rest room. There was nothing for it I explained, walked through the audience, went to the restroom, came back and delivered. Or in Somerset at the Taunton Cricket Ground when preparing I fell through the stage as rotten wood was revealed. But usually life is more mundane, the adrenalin kicks in and the buzz gets me through. I saw Laurie Taylor speak in York University in the early 1970s, an inspirational speaker. He once said that his earlier career as an actor was key. Lecturing, public speaking was a performance. And so I have tried to emulate this. The more the performance can bring the material alive the better it will be received. But now it’s done, thank you for listening.