Prison Fellowship CEO James Ackerman on public speaking, butterflies, and the transformative work of Jesus revealed through Derek at a prison workshop.
PUBLIC SPEAKING AND BUTTERFLIES
I love public speaking, often joking, "I have never met a microphone I didn’t like."
I learned the basics of public speaking from practice and some tips from my mother, the actress Elinor Donahue. She taught me to speak slowly. “To yourself, it may feel a bit unnatural or uncomfortable at first, but to everyone else you’ll sound thoughtful and considered.”
She was right—most people get nervous in front of an audience and speak too fast. Slow it down and you’ll seem more confident. The other thing she taught me is to “muster the butterflies to give the best performance you can.” Having butterflies is a good sign; it means you want to do well. You must control them, though, or they will ruin your talk.
Over the years, I developed four very simple principles for effective public speaking:
- Speak slowly.
- Prepare well.
- Make it interesting.
- Practice makes perfect.
AN INVITATION TO TEACH
A few months ago, I was invited by an incarcerated man in California to conduct a workshop based on these principles for men at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility, near the border with Mexico. The warden and his staff had authorized a speaking series started by a group of men serving time in that prison. I was honored to be invited, and we scheduled the workshop to take place the day before Prison Fellowship® planned to hold a Hope Event® there.
A couple of weeks before the workshop, I was told to expect about 25–40 men, which sounded great to me. Two days before my arrival, the event had to be moved from a classroom to the gymnasium since nearly 200 men had signed up for the class.
Yes, 200 men. I started the class by reading two speeches that are related but were delivered 100 years apart. Can you guess what two speeches I am referring to? A couple of the men in the workshop were able to guess correctly. They are the Gettysburg Address, delivered by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963. As I read these speeches out loud, my goal was not to emulate the original speakers, but to read them in my own voice.
Then, for about 20 minutes, I walked through the four principles above. Next, I invited the men to come up and address the audience for two to three minutes on a topic they are passionate and knowledgeable about. I would give them feedback, encouragement, and coaching. Twenty-five men came forward.
ONE OF THE REASONS I LOVE GOING INTO PRISON
The second man to step up was Derek. But instead of reading about what Derek shared, you can watch the video at the top of this post.
Derek made my day. The whole two-hour workshop was worth it, even if he had been the only one participating. In a matter of minutes, Derek went from being terrified to delivering an important and impassioned speech. He found his voice and his calling. His message is vital, and I hope the system gives him the opportunity to share it.
Few messages are more important for men in prison to hear: Take responsibility for your actions, understand there are victims, and do everything you can (within the appropriate constructs) to make amends to your victims. Derek murdered someone. He knows it, accepts responsibility for it, has apologized to the family and other victims through a restorative justice program in California, and is determined to focus on making amends and improving himself.
This is one of the reasons I love going into prison. You meet amazing people there and see firsthand the beautiful, transformative work of Jesus in the lives of people most of society would prefer to forget.
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