What’s it like to speak to others about this topic that I’ve made so key in my life? Allow me to give you an idea what it was like to speak at an Active Minds chapter at a university in Boston. Active Minds is a mental health group on hundreds of universities around the United States and Canada. Their focus is students ages 14-25 and they began in 2001. They’re the most well-known mental health group that works with students on college campuses.
I never know how many people will be at an Active Minds talk. The lives of college students are busy. Sometimes there may be five people and other times thirty-five. It’s always hard to say. I set expectations low and force my mind to acknowledge as a reality that there will be four or five folks there. I will make it intimate and relaxed—more conversational. But I also am aware of what I should do if there are many more students than just a handful.
I was pretty excited when I showed up to this particular gig to find approximately twenty-five students sitting in the classroom.
I brought up my PowerPoint presentation. I try not to have too many slides—enough to reinforce primary points.
And then I set in to share my own story of dealing with loneliness in college and how I found myself in that position because of my mental health issues. I stopped at one point in the middle to ask some students their thoughts on why their age group (18-22 year olds) has some of the highest rates of loneliness. They came up with good responses that left me impressed—this was a very self-aware group of individuals.
I followed this up by explaining things they could do to help with their loneliness. There are tools they might use to get out of it should they find themselves in that situation.
When my presentation was over I took some questions from the audience. There were good responses from everyone, including asking how I got into speaking about mental health. I was also asked why I suggested volunteering as a good means to make connections.
Afterward I spoke with a few students and handed out my contact info. I find speaking with students one-on-one to be my favorite part of the evening. I am always curious how they connect to what I shared. I’m also interested in getting a pulse on what is happening amongst a group of individuals to which I am so passionate to speak to.
Every speaking gig is a little different because human beings are unique. But on the whole, that’s what it’s like to speak on the subject of loneliness to university students. It takes a lot of time and practice but it’s worth it. Why? Because what I’ve said can have a positive effect on others. Also, the responses I receive afterward, both in person and through messages, are encouraging. These responses give me a sense of purpose and drive to help me continue with living my life to help others.
Like what you read? Want to have Kurt come talk to your group about belonging, loneliness, and mental health? Click here to contact him about speaking at your event.
How does one go from feeling nervous about public speaking to presenting a 35 minute talk on loneliness? Should you accept the challenge of becoming a public speaker your experience will vary, but here are the steps I took.
In high school I was in a couple of plays but always had small roles—just a few lines. I sang for my friends’ hardcore punk band on occasion, too. It was a real rush to feel so many people with their eyes on me. After that my performing life went dormant for a long while.
In graduate school in 2009 and 2010 I began to present at academic conferences on my masters thesis subject—1970s Christian scare films. Despite small audiences (as is the case at almost all such events), I discovered I enjoyed being in front of others. I liked sharing information about a subject in which I had an interest.
In 2014 I decided to break myself out of a depressive spell by taking a stand-up comedy class. I have always enjoyed watching stand-up and thought that I could do it. I performed at about 15-20 open mics and did a showcase for my class, too. While I didn't take to the comedy scene, I did know I liked being on stage with people watching me. In such a situation, I found it created a nervous ball of energy and anxiety that pushed me to perform with great passion.
The next year, 2015, I looked into giving historical tours. I took a class through a non-profit that offers such tours and learned a bit more about the history of Boston. After six weeks I graduated a docent and began practicing. And practicing. And practicing. I walked my tour route in Boston's North End many times. I practiced out loud in my room. I followed nine different guides on their tours so I could see what they did. I gave three practice tours to friends. When my time finally came I did all right. It wasn't the best thing ever but I enjoyed it. As long as I felt comfortable with the material, it went okay.
After doing that tour for three years I started working for another company giving a different tour. I learned to handle horrible situations: down-pouring rain, bratty children, fist fights, and drug addicts around me as I tried to tell tales. These situations built character and resilience.
I started going to Toastmasters about this time, learning the fundamentals of giving speeches. I realized I already had most things down well. I used Toastmasters to try out some ideas, though, including my first speech on loneliness. After about a year I left, knowing that I had gotten what I could out of it.
During this same time I made a goal to enter one storytelling event. I practiced my story to my cat and my mirror a dozen times or more. And when it came to my first story slam, I won the audience choice award. For the second event, I entered I won the entire story slam! It's taken me years to work on my self-esteem but I can finally say that this is something at which I excel.
When it came to learning how to understand the speaking business and find gigs, I listened to The Speaker Lab. It's a podcast for speakers and those who want to speak. I also read a lot of articles. I took a copious amount of notes.
I've learned that moving in a stair-step approach—taking on things one at a time—is also helpful. I can't imagine going from no public speaking to giving a 35-minute presentation. But adding one challenge and then another enabled me to build confidence. I may not be the best public speaker but I'm doing what I can to share ideas and help some people along the way. It didn't happen over night but the journey has been well worth it.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.