Wednesday 22 May 2019

Billy Keane: 'If you're nervous about speaking in public like I was, don't lollygag - join up with this talkative crew'

Keane's Kingdom

'Toastmasters is a not-for-profit group which has no agenda other than to help us express ourselves in public.' Stock image
'Toastmasters is a not-for-profit group which has no agenda other than to help us express ourselves in public.' Stock image
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The man asked me to talk about buttons and as you might well expect I focused almost exclusively on the belly button, the most important button of all.

The local Toastmasters were in John B's for one of their weekly meetings with President John O'Connor keeping order. Toastmasters has nothing to do with cheers or sláinte. The organisation is all about getting people to a stage where they feel confident enough to speak in public.

According to Derry Butler, the Toastmasters evaluator, there has been research which suggests that people's worst fear is death, with speaking in public a close second.

I have had a stutter for years. My breath used to go when I was a teenager. There was a mission in our school just before Easter. The priest in charge was a very decent man who had a real understanding of teenagers.

But there was a reading to be done at the Mass in the class and the priest assumed because I was John B Keane's son it would be second nature for me to speak in public.

I used to get this tightness in the chest when I was asked to read anything at all.

I told the priest as much but he thought I was joking him as I had no bother with talking in class. In fact, the bother for me was talking far too much in class.

I couldn't get out of it and when I was asked to read the piece I thought I was going to get a heart attack. It was a reading from the 'First Book of Billy'. I left half of the reading out and put in my own words for words I couldn't get out.

I had no idea where the stutter or the terror came from. Dad used to get me to read his writing back to him. So there I was, a small boy up on dad's lap reading out stories about lads killing each other over land and there was never any sign of a stoppage in my speech. I was word perfect.

I got better as time went on, but I was still very nervous.

A good few years later I was driving Uncle Eamonn to a poetry reading in Newcastlewest. Richard Burton said Uncle Eamonn had one of the finest speaking voices in all of acting. Patrick Kavanagh specifically asked that Eamonn read the Monaghan man's masterpieces on the radio.

So I tell Eamonn I found reading in public really tough, what with the stutter and the gasping for air like a fish on the bank of the river.

Eamonn told me he had a very bad stutter when he was young. He used to go down to the river and shout across to the other side as loud as he could. Eamonn kept practising and after a time he was rid of the speech difficulty.

He gave me the confidence. I thought I was the only one who had this problem. I often went down to the Feale for a good roar after that.

There are kids with far more complex problems who need massive support.

My problem was down to nerves and when I saw what my uncle had achieved it gave me the lead I needed.

It also occurred to me that if I wasn't nervous reading for Dad why should I be nervous reading for anyone else. It's only now decades later that it dawns on me what Dad was up to when he had me read aloud to him.

I seldom get nervous now. I have learned to enjoy my Friday slot on 'The Today Show with Dáithí and Maura'. They are great fun and are expert at putting their guests at ease.

Toastmasters is a gentle introduction to speaking in public. The group are very supportive and they really care for new members. The feedback helped me greatly, even though I only attend meetings as a guest due to having a day job at night pulling pints.

Toastmasters is a not-for-profit group which has no agenda other than to help us express ourselves in public. Join up. There is no forcing and its methods are tried and tested.

Bit by bit, you will come in to your own and maybe even enjoy making that wedding speech, sober. In the meantime, there's lots of fun to be had listening to the contributors at the meetings.

Toastmasters came up with a word on Thursday night in John B's. It was "lollygag", which means "to dawdle or wander aimlessly".

I was supposed to use it in my speech about buttons which was thrown at me by Toastmasters' Gerald Mannix by way of a challenge. This wasn't the usual format. New speakers are given plenty of time to prepare.

As we said up at the top, the belly button is the button we all started out with.

We were safe there in the womb, lollygagging around in the swimming pool. Sometimes I miss the womb.

I told Toastmasters every Irish son is still connected to his mom via the belly button, even though the umbilical cord has been severed many years before.

The umbilical cord is like the internet and is an invisible conduit between mother and son that may stretch out for thousands of miles.

There was this Australian girl in the pub last summer and she was the one who told me about the belly button terminus.

The Aussie girl was on Skype from Sydney to her mother-in-law who was in Tipperary. The mother-in-law asked her if she ever made gravy for "my Mikey".

The Aussie girl hadn't a clue about the makings of onion gravy and the Tipp mom soon put her right.

Their Mikey arrived back from dropping one of the kids to a birthday party.

He hadn't been privy to the discussion about gravy. And what does he say on Skype only "I was just driving home and I thought wouldn't it be lovely if mum gave you the recipe for her gravy?" The message came in via the bellybutton.

And of course, as always happens, I got the best line of all from my friend Maura Mac Connell when the speech on the buttons was done and over.

"Billy," said Maura, "the belly button is very handy for keeping the salt in when you're eating chips in bed."

Sláinte, Maura.

Irish Independent

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