I don’t know what you’re doing right now but I want you to head over to YouTube and watch Barack Obama’s old speeches.
It is what is playing in my headphones at the moment, as I write you this story. I am currently listening to his 2004 keynote speech in Boston, when he was first introduced to Americans as a potential presidential candidate.
The speech is 16 minutes long.
You can tell that Obama by then hadn’t stepped into the White House, you can tell from his suit: it’s a frightening shade of black and a size too big, even the shoulder pads aren’t sitting where they should. He looks like the school captain of some prestigious national school: youthful, boyish, coyness swimming just beneath the surface of his demeanour.
He is inhabiting the look though, it is endearing.
On any other loose Tuesday afternoon, I would be listening to Amapiano or a deejay mix by Nigerian artists. Something upbeat and urban to kick the sleep out of my eyes. Something that would awaken the nostalgia of December, with its loosey-goosey days and road trips that never seem to have a destination, just a journey. As is life.
Instead I am listening to Barack Obama’s speeches, and guess what? They too are engaging me albeit in a difficult-to-comprehend alternative dimension. Different parts of my brain are being awakened – I can hear them stretch and yawn.
Best believe that this is not out of choice. I am listening to Obama’s speeches as part of my assignment – I have been instructed to watch them by my public speaking coach.
You read that right: I have a public speaking coach. (I also have a piano tutor, but more on that another day.) I am riding on that wave that comes with January, the one that has everyone wanting to tighten their cores, to spend less money in the bar and less time in front of the TV, to think up smarter ideas on how to get to the corner office, how to make more money.
Basically, to be a better version of themselves in this New Year.
I had my first public speaking class earlier this week; it is the first of ten. The class itself is a one-on-one class, it runs for an hour and a half, at most. From 8.30a.m. We meet in the outdoor sitting of a deserted diner that has lots of trees with soulful personalities, it feels like we are seated in the middle of the Arboretum.
My coach is a Toastmaster. Same as Barack Obama. She told me, ‘Once a Toastmaster, always a Toastmaster.’
She has been a Toastmaster for over 10 years, practicing and refining this craft of public speaking until she can coach others. I, too, will be a lifelong member of this international club. I, too, will coach others at some point down the line. I am not rooted to any chapter in Nairobi, at least not yet.
I am told that the public speaking community here in Nairobi is one I will be awfully proud to be associated with.
I know you are thinking, What does Bett need public speaking skills for? I need public speaking skills as much as you need to learn how to milk a camel. Or to dance bachata. Or to live in a North Pacific submarine for 100 days. Hell, to master the piano. We need to do these things because we want to get hangover from drinking off this beautiful life we have been created to wholly experience.
It is never a question of ‘why?’ dear reader, but a question of ‘why not?’ Do it because you can. Do it because it is within reach. Do it just because. (I already feel like I am making a speech, he-he. Complete with Obama’s accent and signature pauses. I am even gesturing with my fingers as I speak. Tonal variation, anybody?)
Away from the thirst to experience new things, I am also polishing up my personal brand. Image and all that jazz. I need to be able to stand in front of a crowd and make them buy whatever it is I am selling, even if it is only a dream only I can envision. I want to sell it as Obama did.
Listening to – and studying – Obama’s speeches on YouTube is assignment one. My other takeaway assignment is to write a speech to introduce myself. They call this speech The Icebreaker.
I had already introduced myself in class but it was a total snooze fest. I went something like, ‘Hey, my name is Bett. I am a writer and author. I am also a…’ Boring, that was a very boring way to introduce yourself. My coach said, ‘Tell us a story, Bett. Always tell a story.’
That was reassuring feedback because stories I can tell… on paper, though.
I am drafting a speech that I will present to my coach in my next class. I will practise it in front of the mirror – alone – whenever I have a moment. My coach also told me that I should also get into the habit of recording myself on video and into a voice recorder, then playing it back to hear my own voice, to watch myself for my blind spots. At some point I will also learn to time myself.
I have indicated in my speech where to pause, and for how long, where to chuckle, where to give the audience room to laugh at my jokes (if they will! Yikes).
I will practise the speech until I have mastered it by heart. I don’t want to be one of those speakers who go to the podium with sheets of paper or an iPad, sijui the notebook I am already guilty of crutching on. This is not a church sermon I am delivering.
I want to articulate myself from the heart, like Obama himself.
An edited version of this story first ran in the Saturday Nation, under my Culture column. It ran on January 22, 202217