At 26 years of age, I was a bricklayer, with very limited education and pretty fuzzy comprehension. Yet within my soul was a desperate, urgent, compelling desire to communicate. I did not at this stage have any message – only a feeling that I had something burning inside that had to get out; and I was prepared to trade my life for it.
The trigger that exploded my life into what I was to become (and am still becoming) was released on May 25th, 1959, at a Billy Graham crusade. It was to take me on an endless of presidents, film stars and celebrities of all kinds, into the dizzy worlds of high finance and, by contrast, to the corners of the earth in war zones where poverty and depravation of the worst possible kind prevailed.
I never looked back, because I was changed; I had experienced something akin to Wesley when ‘his heart was strangely warmed,’ or, as others have put it, I was ‘exposed with clarity to a moment of truth’. I have often tried to explain it to my wife and family: I hear a different song of music that is beyond description but ever present. With its magic rhythm, it sets the direction for my journey, like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. The sound goes on – sometimes quickening the pace, sometimes more slowly, but always with the same haunting call to obey.
In those early days, I was asked to speak at a Sunday School anniversary for 25 minutes. I was a miserable failure and spoke, haltingly and in a state of fear, for about eight minutes – and then folded speechless and full of despair. When I got home, I wept. I had thought that my compelling desire to speak would be enough, but the result was nothing but empty platitudes without structure or theme. Having recovered somewhat, I enrolled in a Public Speaking class to try and learn the techniques that would help me fulfil my dream.
As I sat and listened to the instructor, my heart sank and I walked out, never to return again. The lecturer’s own ability to speak in public was inadequate. I knew that I needed to rise above the mediocrity of that teacher, and I was afraid that if I stayed in the course, I might get locked into a style and presence that would never become awesome or great.
I went home and read what Abraham Lincoln had said: ‘I will study and prepare and my opportunity will come.’ For the next five years, almost every day, I polished my diction and dialogue listening to my speeches on a tape recorder and correcting what I thought were obvious flaws. During that time, although involved in many areas of church and social work, I was given little opportunity to speak in public.
On one rare occasion, I was asked to preach at our church. I received a tremendous response from the congregation – only to have the pastor say, ‘You must have copied that from someone else.’ I was never invited to preach again! It was at that time that my wife, Robina, recognised that I had something different, and that somehow I had what was to be described by others a long time later as ‘ the awesome power of public speaking.’ And so, with openness and affection to all who have heard a different sound and what to express it to others, I take you through the well learned lessons of the past 30 years – my pilgrimage to the awesome power of public speaking.