“Paddy,” he said, “the most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing!
That was the very first lesson my mentor taught me at the beginning of my Professional Speaking career back in the mid-1990s!
I was new to the speaking stage. I had never stood there before. Give me a microphone and lock me up in a Radio studio and I am right at home. But – now – me and my big mouth got me invited to speak at a World Qigong Convention at the Jacob Javits Centre in New York City. Expected audience size: 5,000.
I was used to performing in public as an amateur and then professional figure skater. And the same ease I felt being in the Radio Studio where no one can see you, performing on ice in front of hundreds was easy. I knew what I was doing, for one thing. This public speaking thing, however, I wasn’t so sure of.
I would have kept on skating and could have avoided this whole speaking in public thing altogether. Except that my brilliant professional athlete’s career ended when my body was so broken down, I could no longer handle being on the ice. I was forced to retire and soon began to walk with two canes, often dragging the right side of my body behind.
The doctors and all the Sports medicine people couldn’t figure out what was happening, but the x-rays and tests showed that my joints were breaking and chipping into millions of miniscule fragments. The muscle, nerve, and bone pain were almost unbearable. Because Western doctors in Canada didn’t know how to treat me, I went in search of other medicines and healing modalities. I spent 25 years on the road studying herbal and bush medicines and many forms of healing meditations. I travelled far and studied in many countries and cultures before I found my way back on to my feet and back into the work world. It was Qigong meditation that got me back on my feet. Qigong was exactly what I had needed to complement all the healing modalities I had spent those 25 years studying.
It so happens, I had a pretty interesting story of having been a top trained elite athlete who ended up severely disabled and made it back again. People wanted to know what I had done and how.
It seemed my future was in telling the lessons learned from my past. I was encouraged by many to tell my story. I said Yes to New York– before I had really thought about the magnitude of what I had just agreed to.
Not to mention, getting up there to tell my story of going from disability to different ability in front of 5000 people was a little too over the top. Nonetheless, I had agreed. They told me that I had been given one hour in which to tell my story. An hour! I was used to the 40 second radio reporter clip!
Oh, and did I tell you, half of the audience spoke Chinese only, so, a translator would stand next to me and simultaneously translate my speech from English to Chinese? I was terrified. I couldn’t even imagine how I was going to pull this off. I’d never even been to New York before. And now, I was going to stand in front of 5,000 people?!? From around the world?
Then, I remembered that when I was a kid and my Mom was raising a family on her own, she went to Toastmasters to help her improve her own communication and employability skills. I hadn’t heard of Toastmasters since and had no idea if they were still in operation.
It was in the mid-90s, so I don’t remember how I found the Club I first joined. There was no internet in those days. Nonetheless, I managed to find a Club that was aligned with Vancouver’s best-known healing magazine at that time, Shared Vision. Their platform was holistic, complementary, and alternative medicines. It seemed like the right place to get my story straight and figure out how to tell all those people. The Club met at 7:00 am every Wednesday, way across town.
Within the first hour of my first meeting, I had met a mentor, Michael, who thought my story was fascinating. He had been an award-winning TV producer and knew a lot about communicating and communication. For some reason, he was completely committed to helping me succeed.
We got together for our first meeting. He said, “Give me your hour-long speech in 3 minutes!” “In 3 minutes?” I looked at him like he was the one who needed mentoring. I mean – who can condense their 60-minute oration down to 3 minutes. “Are you kidding me?” I asked.
He was serious; dead serious. “If you can’t give me that speech in 3 minutes and hit every point, you’re not ready for the world stage!” He was tough. And I felt like an imposter. Like, what was I thinking that I could even do this stupid speech in New York anyway!
“Paddy, you have to know the message! Period! It shouldn’t matter how much stage time they give you, if can’t keep your speech to three minutes, then you don’t know the most important thing about your speech. And the most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing. Understand? Now, let me hear your one-hour speech in 3 minutes.”
Michael was brilliant. He helped me use my journalist skills to get to the heart of the story within seconds. With work, I had my hour-long speech masterfully condensed to 3 minutes.
With a lot of support of my friends, I made my way to the Big Apple. The Javits Centre is huge and really intimidating looking. The Convention was 3 days long and there really were people from all over the world. It was exhilarating – as long as I didn’t think about my speech!
Finally, the day came for me to speak. There was no emcee nor anyone keeping time. I was to speak second to last, just before the Grand Master from China. I was feeling good. Ready. On pointe.
Suddenly, a woman whispers in my ear, “Paddy, we are very much behind time. Can you give your speech in 30 minutes?” Feeling greatly confident, I said, “Sure.”
She came back a little later and said, “I’m so sorry, do you think you can give your speech in 20 minutes?” Then, “I’m so sorry Paddy, do you think you can give your speech in 10 minutes or less?” I said, “Don’t worry. I can give my speech in 3 minutes. I just need 3 minutes.” She looked at me like I had lost my mind. I told her not to worry.
Before I knew it, they were introducing me in Chinese and English. I took to the stage, my translator standing beside me. The crowd was huge. I couldn’t even see all the way to the back of the room. Just a sea of bodies.
And I delivered my one-hour speech in 3 minutes. Then something weird happened. As I finished, the audience started to tell me not to go. They wanted more. I gave another 3 minutes. The audience wanted more. I kept going. Suddenly, the “Chinese” side of the room told the translator to stop; that they wanted to listen to me without him translating. I moved to center stage and spoke to the entire room.
Not only did I give my complete one-hour speech, but I also got a standing ovation. And the Grand Master referred to my speech throughout his! I was blown away. And hooked on standing on that great big stage, just telling my story.
I still remember Michael’s wise teaching. Even if I am giving a 7-hour seminar, I can deliver the main message in a nutshell. I always remember Michael telling me: “The most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing.”
It’s wonderfully sage advice. I hope you will take it too!
I wish you all the best as you take to the stage to tell your story!
• Cato the Elder, the Roman Scholar and orator said: “Know your message and your words will follow.” He knew of what he spoke.
• Be prepared to deliver your keynote address in a few minutes. Professionals have to roll with whatever comes. That’s what makes us Professional!
• Never, no matter what happens, drop the point of your message. Always know the most important thing and have it ready for delivery! Your audience will love you for it.
Published in Women On Success (2020)