Public speaking, performance, oral storytelling. This is my craft. I am good enough at it that others will listen to me and learn from me in order to develop their own skills and techniques. Public speaking. It is my thing. But now, I am losing it.
For many years now, people have thanked me for my diction, voice projection, expression, when they have heard me speak in public.
In the past year I have received more feedback than ever before that my voice is soft, I can’t be heard. So I must reflect and examine the cause of my diminished voice.
Back in congregational ministry, preaching every week, and to a congregation that is full of intelligent, mature, inquisitive, engaged-by-justice followers of Jesus, I have found myself composing reflections on the Bible that are bold, challenging, unconventional. There are times I have worried I will push too far into new territory for my listeners. I suspect this diminishes my voice, if I give in to uncertainty and the anticipation of rejection, I will speak tentatively.
Very rarely have I received anything other than welcome, appreciation, and affirmation for the message in these bolder sermons.
Going forward, here, then, is one of the contributing factors to my diminished voice I can easily address, as I learn to trust that I am discerning appropriately as I encounter the Spirit in Scripture and community.
The voice begins with, but is not only, the voice box. Voice is a fully embodied act.
The breath that comes from deep within carries the voice, releases emotion, expresses your very self.
The mouth with its tongue and teeth and lips and roof and connected sinuses is the complex mechanism by which we form spoken language.
The body, from eyes that open, close, widen, and narrow, to arms that stretch and hands that clench, point, unfold, shun, legs that hold us in place or move us from character to character, scene to scene, and the torso’s diaphragm and lungs supporting the voice, heart beating the blood, muscles holding us straight and tall and open to our audience – all this is involved in speaking aloud.
When I pick up a cold or virus, it begins in the voice box, the instrument I use so often, which seems to be vulnerable when it is tired. My immune system is even weaker than ever these days: I pick up every cold or virus, and when I do, I lose my capacity to speak, or at least to speak unencumbered by fits of coughing. My voice is so often diminished by colds and viruses.
I feel with my chronic illness that oxygen has a hard time moving through my body: my breath is shallow and laboured. That will diminish my voice.
I’ll come back to the mechanisms for mouthing words, for I feel there is something else going on there. Undoubtedly those colds and viruses are affecting my sinuses, however.
With this chronic illness, my eyes are tired and only wish to close; my arms are heavy and hard to lift and stretch; my legs ache so that it is sometimes such an effort simply to stand; my torso collapses with the pain and weight of this illness. I am closed down, not open: this diminishes my voice.
This is the diary of a chronically exhausted vicar. A minister who is constantly overwhelmed by fatigue.
The impact of such ceaseless deep tiredness is far reaching.
We’ve just noted the physical impact on my body.
That physical tiredness, and the aching weight of it, means I move slowly. Physically, I am slower to do tasks than before. Cognitively, I am slow in my thinking. Emotionally, soulfully, intuitively, I am slow to feel my way through conversations and stories, slow in my creative processes.
So the task of writing a sermon is like pushing a big round stone up a big steep hill. Bloody hard.
It means that I often don’t reach my conclusion until Saturday. In my sermon writing process, I would ideally write the rough draft on Thursday, and finalise on Friday, so that I can spend Saturday rehearsing and polishing.
It is Friday again, and I have a few rough notes from my early thinking to choose a theme and the portions to be heard in worship so that my colleague could shape the liturgy and choose the music in time for orders of service to be compiled and printed. I have nothing else. I can neither feel nor think the meaning, the message, I might communicate on Sunday. My being is so dulled by the tiredness after a week of complex juggling of administration and worship planning for special services later in the month, pastoral matters and personal life management (at which I am failing), I will be battling uphill all day to find the sermon for this week.
What does that do to my voice? With such late arrival at the message I will speak, by the time I come to speak it I am not very familiar with it. This means my confidence is down, for I haven’t had the time to be convinced by the message myself.
And it means that – and here we come back to the mechanics of mouthing the message – my mouth is unfamiliar with the words I have crafted. My breath has not been given time to carry the message into my body, its sinews and muscles, and my being does not know well enough what I will say. That – that – diminishes my voice.
What is the central thing I encourage those I teach about speaking in public? Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. My illness has me so incapacitated I cannot go about my practice properly. I am living proof, in the negative, that what I teach has merit.
Strengthen your body, and warm it up so it is open to express meaning. My body is weak and cannot.
Open your breath to the depth of your being, so it will carry your voice and your meaning. My breath is shallow and cannot.
Rehearse your message so your body – your whole being – will know what you want to say and will convey, integrated and effective, your meaning. I haven’t the time to rehearse, so I do not know what it is I want to say.
What next for me and my diminished voice?
Hydrotherapy is already yielding results in improving breath and body and energy. That will help recover my voice.
Then I think I might need to adjust my rhythm and begin the sermon writing process a week earlier than I have been. My trepidation is that it will mean sitting with multiple stories at once, as I begin one sermon while simultaneously finishing and polishing another. Will this be too much for my dulled cognitive and creative processes? I do not know, but I think I must try. On reflection, I have realised this is serious.
Public speaking is my thing, and I cannot lose it all together to this illness.
My voice is me, and I must not lose myself to this illness.