I made the decision to get involved in speaking to groups, to tell my story, put a face to HIV/AIDS and to be an advocate to fight HIV stigma. I took the Speaker’s Bureau training and learned there’s no wrong way to tell my story but there is a right way to present it. To get the message out you have to develop skills that help people hear you and hear the message.
I told my story once prior to this training at the University of Guelph. It was a Human Sexuality class with about 100 students in one of those lecture halls. I was a bit nervous. Luckily for me there were two of us and the other person wanted to go first. It wasn't as bad as I thought; I could share as much or as little as I wanted, what I was comfortable with. The class was made aware that there would be time for questions but that I may choose not to answer some of them if they were too personal.
That’s the background. Recently, for two long and gruelling days I had to learn how to break down some barriers to public speaking, how to stand, use body language, speak clearly, and remember tons of do's and don'ts. I really thought I was going to 'ace' this workshop, it wasn't going to be all that bad. It was conducted by PWA (People with AIDS) Foundation out of Toronto.
"Wrong"! As we got into it, I learned a lot about myself that I needed to change if people were going to listen to me and hear what I'm saying.
The class was well attended, I think there were twelve of us and as we proceeded to do the exercises, I could see there were a few others just as nervous as I was. The two facilitators and three of the other participants were long-term survivors who have been telling their story for many years so there was plenty of experience to draw from.
On completion of the course, we were informed that the facilitators would be coming back in about a month to do what they called "Speaker's Idol" – but without Ryan Seacrest. We had that time to put together our story because we would have to tell it to the entire group on that date. It would be a condition of receiving one’s certificate. One other condition was that we would have to go out and do at least four speaks. We would all give feedback to each other and in time the information would be given to us so we can see what we did right or wrong and things to improve on.
So along came "Speaker's Idol”. I had worked on my story for several days, I was confident I was going to do a good job. Well - wrong again. I had a list of things I wanted to go over prior to telling my story and wouldn't you know, I grabbed the wrong sheet of paper off my desk. I sat there as everyone else told their stories, trying to see how it’s done, and trying to remember how to tell my own. I thought of getting it over with right away and be the first but kept chickening out saying, "next, I'll do mine next". I think I was the third last person.
We were supposed to talk for twenty minutes, no longer or we would be told to stop. Man-O-man, was I nervous. How would I fill that much time without my notes. I even chose to sit while I told it, my knees were ready to give out. So many thoughts ran through my head as I started. I did get it out in proper order but it was like a "Reader's Digest" version. I found out I only talked for about twelve minutes. There was a question period after each story so I got to tell a little more that way.
I was asked to tell my story recently, again for some university students that were coming to tour our AIDS Service Organization. Knowing I had to do the four speaks, I saw this as an opportunity to knock one off the list. I really thought I was prepared but, I hate saying this, wrong again.
I am in a small room with about twelve students. Talk about closed-in spaces. I think I prefer the lecture halls more; everyone is so much further away. I mumbled a bit - well maybe more than a bit, and yet again, I didn't talk very long. I opened it up to questions and was able to share more that way.
Yesterday, I get my feedback from "Speaker's Idol". It wasn't all good but I do need to hear it. People were very honest, I was expecting most of the comments. There was one comment that I was just a bit put off by - someone said that I should lose the hat. WHAT? It’s part of me now, I can't do that. It’s like my security blanket.
Some of the highlights were that I came across as honest, straightforward, I used good examples on issues of stigma and disclosure. I also expressed responsibility for my diagnosis and admitted that the other person may not have known he was positive. A few people mentioned that I had a good sense of humour.
On the negative/needs some work side, my voice is too mono-toned, a little too soft spoken. I should have stood up instead of sat. I didn't make eye contact, only with the people across from me. I need more body language, using my hands more. To some I appeared nervous or showed low confidence.
"Lose the hat", oh, I'll never get over that one. Haha!
To summarize it all, I think I did well enough to work on what needs work and proceed to do more speaks. I will be sitting on a panel for our agency in June so I’d better get busy. We are doing a forum on my favourite topic, HIV and aging, I am glad they asked me.