I am not very fond of public speaking or being the centre of attention. I sometimes have someone else lead the larger public rituals in my place. Since I am not comfortable, I have to work on speaking clearly and confidently when participating in a group ritual.
As I’ve written before, participants can only really feel a part of the ritual if they can hear it, so speaking loudly and clearly is obviously important. Speaking at the right speed is also part of making sure your words are appreciated. I tend to speak too fast in front of groups and I have to make a constant effort to slow down and pause more frequently, especially while leading meditations.
The other thing I’ve noticed in speakers in group rituals of all sizes, however, is a tendency to speak as though the words were meant ironically.
I don’t like acting. I am easily embarrassed. I have had the problem where the words that seemed so poetic and beautiful on paper seem cheesy when spoken out loud. And when all those factors are combined, I won’t always commit to my part, and my speech ends up coming out without affect. When read or recited flatly, a beautiful quarter call or invocation can very easily sound sardonic or even contemptuous.
There are some people who just naturally have neutral voices, but when I hear flat recitals from someone who speaks with great enthusiasm and energy otherwise, I know something else is going on. And I do think it comes down to embarrassment. Those of us without acting or public speaking training often feel self-conscience in front of a large silent group, so the tendency is to just get through it so everyone’s attention will move on. But along with that, our society currently seems to value irony and wit over enthusiasm and sincerity. I suspect that everyone with a sincere passion for something has had someone roll their eyes at them at least once, and it can be wearing to be surrounded by jokes about popular bands and snark about popular passtimes. It can start to feel like you have to choose between being smart, being clever, and being in on the joke, or being a “sheep”, being silly, and being the joke. I’m as guilty of this as anyone; I have a jango.com radio station called “Songs I don’t want people to know I like”.
If in every day life, we’re encouraged to treat our passions ironically and we get used to making clever remarks instead of responding authentically, this will leak into our behaviour in rituals. When then given a “cheesy” speech or a bit of purple prose to recite, some of us will naturally want to rush through it flatly, keeping ourselves detached from the emotions in it, keeping ourselves at a safe distance from something that should demand a wholehearted commitment.
I definitely see the value of acting lessons and public speaking practice in making for better ritual performances – some of the best quarter callers I know have these things in their background – but I don’t think they are necessary for most of us. That said, I don’t have a solution since I’m still working on this myself. What I am doing is practicing with my spiritual family before I go in front of larger groups of people I don’t know as well, and working on saying things more slowly and really thinking about each word and phrase even as I say it. I’m also trying to be more aware of the ways in which I use wit and irony to stay detached in daily life. I challenge everyone to really listen to themselves the next time they call a quarter or invoke a deity. Speak with your heart, commit to what you are saying, and don’t be afraid to let everyone hear your genuine voice.