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Speaking Without Sight by Ettore Cipollone

Posted by Nathalie Brewer on March 27, 2012 at 12:30 AM

 

I have been speaking in front of audiences for around 20 years or so. Recently I came in contact with the Heart Speakers Network. Upon talking to Nathalie Brewer about public speaking from the heart, I realised that never before have I been asked to share my experience of speaking in front of an audience when you are blind.

 

So, I will try the best I can to express the feeling of speaking without sight.

 

When I did have sight before the age of fifteen or so, I always found it difficult to look someone in the eye.  Who knows, maybe I was hiding something or perhaps I was being dishonest about some fact or info, or feeling guilty about some crime I had just committed.

 

I grew up in a rough neighbourhood where there were regular fights and gangs.  One of those fights, involved me and another high school friend.  Fighting with an enemy was one thing, but to fight with an actual friend was a horrible experience which I wouldn't wish to go through ever again particularly when that friend through a punch that changed my life forever. Eventually it led to me completely losing my precious sight. I won't talk about my journey without sight in this article, I will aim to reflect on what it feels like when you speak to a crowd and you can't see any of their reactions.

 

We automatically become suspicious when people don't look you in the eye when you are speaking to them. I believe in my case, I was always self conscious and lacked a great deal of self esteem and so I avoided attention to myself whenever possible.

 

There must be a dozen reasons why people cannot make eye contact in conversations. Although, for me, it’s been far too long for me to remember what it was like when I could see and remember body language and how people responded to how I talk to them. So, today, eye contact, body language and other visual cues, mean something entirely different for me, especially when speaking in front of an audience.

 

In the beginning, when I would hear sounds coming from either the audience or other sources, e.g. creeks in doorframes, chairs, or a slamming door, I would be extraordinarily aware of these noises, so much so, that they sometimes stopped me in my tracks when I was in the middle of a talk or presentation.

 

I believe the only way to overcome these distractions, was to make sure I was so clear on my topic, so watertight on the purpose of my talk, so that it didn't matter when or where these annoying distractions appeared. The mistake was, trying to make my talk ‘word perfect’. In recollection, talks that were word perfect, were and are, unnatural.

 

If you think of how we speak to eachother, one on one, we don't try and make our conversation word perfect. There are mistakes, pauses and even humorous comments being made when we just speak ordinarily to each other. Once I realised this fact, noisy distractions were much easier to handle during a talk.  So the more natural you are about your presentation, the more relaxed the audience will be and the more attentive they are, which in turn can reduce the noisefactor during the presentation.

 

Sometimes, I speak to primary school children. During my talk, we focus on senses. When we come to the topic of sound, I ask the children to close their eyes and listen very carefully to the different sounds around the room and beyond. Afterwards I probe the children to tell me what they heard. It is always surprising how much they would pickup by listening and being quiet at the same time. I'm always aware of breathing sounds coming from the children during this exercise of silence.  The breathing is excited because the children are straining to hear something that the next person may not be able to hear. So, apart from the breathing, the room becomes very tranquil.

 

Often I would be asked the question,"are your senses better than those who are sighted?”  My response was, no not at all.  My senses are more aware of what my surroundings are, because they are always at work.

 

It’s amazing how the human body compensates after the loss of one of the senses.  But these senses don't automatically becomemore attuned, they just jump into action as we need them in order to manage our lives. In other words, if after losing my sight, I was to just stay at home and never go out again, my senses would be restricted to the very small world I was living in.  

 

So with the children, the silence when everyone is concentrating was so relaxing to experience. When we are silent in our own company, it is totally different from when we become silent in the company of many people as a group. You are aware of the presence of many human beings coming together as one thought and one purpose. Silence in this way can tighten our senses to the point of hearing things from a different perspective.

 

 

Without the eye contact with me, children sometimes can be a little distracted.  Either I'm not holding their attention or there is something happening in the room which some of the children are focusing on. Of course I can't see what that would be, so, I give the children the benefit of the doubt. I gently smile int heir direction as I slowly make my way towards where the distracted children are sitting and give them my personal attention as if I am personally talking to them as if they are the only thing that matters in the room at the time.

 

It’s beautiful to hear their little distractions slowly disappear and the room become completely silent again with only the sound of my voice being carried toward them as they concentrate on what I am saying.

 

I have also experienced the situation when speaking to high school children.  Sometimes when I am getting ready to start speaking, almost all of the high school students are speaking loud and not paying attention to the person who is introducing me. The way I handle this situation, is that I begin with a very soft voice, barely audible.  Almost immediately, the students at the front of the class are hushing the once behind them, complaining that they can't hear me. So, I don't have to do all the hard work of hushing the students, its being done for me! The room becomes silent, beginning from the front of the room and rolling back to the end of the room. Once I feel this silence I then slowly raise my voice to a level which is comfortable and audible for everyone in the room and I can then take control of the situation.

 

Maybe, you would control noise differently when you can see and have eye contact with the students with facial expressions etc, but with me, it totally dependends on sound. Now I can't say if these techniques will work with sighted people, although Nathalie assures me that moving from the silence is the secret to public speaking from the heart. I have simply taught myself these techniques over the years. It’s called survival.

 

Finally, when I prepare for a presentation, I like the room being described to me, how the chairs are set up, where people are coming in and out. Also, I like to walk around the stage andget a sense of size and listen to my own voice and the acoustics bouncing back at me.

 

My voice and how I use it, is a big factor in my talk. There is a certain sound and timber in my voice I like to hear during my talk. It’s like a musical instrument. So, like a musical instrument, we need to tune our voices up. This means, that it’s important tospend a few minutes before hand practising some of the talk without anyone there. Of course, your voice will sound different when the room is full. This you get use to in time.

 

There are those who act in silent movies and no sound is coming out of their voice, thus they are using their other senses to get the message across. My advice is to use your senses as much as possible and even try and speak sometimes with a blind fold to make your other senses work harder. Remember, today, your audiences are very diverse, rangingfrom people with little or no sight, to those with language or literacy issues.It’s not enough that we just use one or two senses we must encompass all senses, all tools at our disposal to speak to a wide range of people.

 

Yes its hard work, but the rewards are plenty. Be honest when you speak and speak the truth and your audience will appreciate your hard work, as you move them from one emotion to another. Audiences may not remember everything they have seen and heard, but they will remember how you made them feel.

 

If there is any aspect of this article you wish for me to expand on in the future, please don't hesitate in contacting me. I hope I haven't left you all in the dark and there is some sense in my talking about sense without sight.

 

  

 

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