Speaking About the Unspeakable

If you’re a seasoned Toastmaster, you probably feel comfortable speaking in any number of situations – presenting a new business proposal, giving a toast at your daughter’s wedding, making an acceptance speech or launching a campaign for political office. But there are some topics that make even the most experienced and eloquent speaker squirm and lock his tongue in silence: Death. Grief. Illness. Depression. Sexual abuse. Family trauma. They’re not your typical speech subjects, and yet they’re such universal issues.

Speaking about difficult topics can require more tact, knowledge and preparation than the average presentation, and it naturally triggers a lot of questions. How important is it to have personal experience with the topic? How do you manage your and your audience’s emotions? And is it okay to make jokes when speaking about a sensitive subject? Learn from three individuals who – using different approaches – have touched audiences across the world by speaking about difficult, highly emotional subjects. 

Dell deBerardinis
After developing a treatment model for victims of sexual abuse, licensed psychotherapist and personal development specialist Dell deBerardinis closed her private practice and launched a speaking career in the early 1990s. Since then, she’s traveled across the United States and Canada, spreading awareness of what she calls “our number one health epidemic: child abuse.”

Many of deBerardinis’ talks are targeted toward mental-health specialists, but she also speaks to the general public. Often there will be victims in the audience, which makes her sensitive topic even more precarious.

“You can’t expect not to push anybody’s buttons. Sometimes, the talk brings up a personal issue that makes somebody emotional,” she says. “There have been difficult moments when somebody in the audience is hostile or I get hostile feedback, and it happens more often with topics that are sensitive. My job is to stay professional no matter what and stay tuned into what happens in the audience.”

In cases when emotional people approach her after the talk, deBerardinis makes sure she’s able to offer a phone number or other information about where the person can turn to receive help.

DeBerardinis says what she does best is connecting with the audience and making them feel comfortable with the topic. “I maintain eye contact, involve the audience when I can, and I honor and respect them. I talk to a lot of health care professionals and I’m constantly humbled by them. I keep in mind that they can bring something to the talk too.”

Sometimes, she uses humor to lighten the mood and diffuse some of the seriousness inevitably associated with the topic. “I make jokes about dysfunctional families,” she says. “But I don’t joke about the specific topic that I’m talking about and I probably time it a little differently.”

DeBerardinis’ talks focus more on the personal than on statistics; she thinks sharing a personal experience makes the presentation more real, like revealing her own story about growing up with alcoholic parents. But, she cautions, telling the audience how you battled to overcome a trauma is more important than the fact that it happened to you. “When I share that there was alcoholism in my family, I try to do it with discretion and when I think it will benefit the audience as a learning experience. I think [sharing personal stories] helps create a bond, but you can’t do too much of it because then it might have the opposite effect and push people away. There has to be a balance.”

For speakers who are preparing to tackle a topic like child abuse for the first time, deBerardinis offers the following advice: “Educate yourself, do the research and be prepared that there will be people in the audience who will be touched by it. The most important thing is that the speaker is comfortable with the topic, so do whatever it takes to get to that point. Spend a little time with people who work with it and interview people who have experience with it.”

She adds, “Another thing that’s so important when you’re talking about topics like this is to offer solutions. We’re talking about problems, but as a speaker it’s also my job to present some things that you can do about it.”

Dell deBerardinis lives in Texas and is the author of Sexual Abuse: Recognition and Recovery, and Therapy Made Simple. Learn more about deBerardinis at www.speakerdell.com.

Bobby Smith
If somebody would’ve told Bobby Smith 25 years ago that he was going to switch his career as a law enforcement officer in Louisiana for one as a professional speaker, he probably would’ve scoffed at the thought. But in 1986, Smith was shot in the face and blinded by a violent drug offender. Eleven years later, his 22-year-old daughter Kimberley was killed in a car accident. The traumas Smith went through – losing his eye-sight, job, independence, self-confidence, marriage, and finally his daughter – catapulted him onto the international speaking circuit.

The first time he told a group of fellow law enforcement officers about the assault that left him blind, Smith broke down and started sobbing uncontrollably half an hour into the talk. “I was an emotional wreck. It was horrible,” he says, acknowledging he wasn’t really ready to speak about his trauma at that point. Smith didn’t realize it at the time, but speaking, and as a result helping others deal with trauma and loss, eventually became a sort of therapy. That doesn’t mean it’s for everybody. “You’ve got to be careful with that. Just because you have a story to tell doesn’t mean you have to tell it. Not now,” he says.

Speaking has been profoundly personal for Smith from the get-go, and he says having experience with the topics he covers has been key to his success. “I’m a storyteller and all my stories are personal,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who are hurting and they need to hear about it, not just from a textbook standpoint.”  

                    “Telling the audience how you battled to overcome a trauma
                    is more important than the fact that it happened to you."

Smith has seen many experienced speakers put audiences to sleep by loading up their talks with PowerPoint presentations and too many faceless statistics, while leaving out the stories that could potentially move and engage the listeners. Smith says he usually outlines every presentation in his head but never uses notes or speaks from a lectern.

His speeches often bring people to tears, with some people sobbing openly, but humor is also an important component of his self-taught speaking style. “I’ve learned to laugh at myself and I laugh with people, not at people. I laugh about being blind and some of the things I do as a blind person,” he says. Sometimes, Smith gets emotional when speaking and he doesn’t always know what part of the presentation will trigger it. “I don’t plan to cry and I don’t plan to laugh. I just show the real me and expose myself to the audience,” he says. “I call it the ‘Southern style.’ I speak from my heart and what you see is what you get.”

Bobby Smith is the author of Visions of Courage and The Will to Survive. Learn more about Smith at www.visionsofcourage.com.

Sara Rich Wheeler
Most parents can’t think of anything more painful than losing a child, and as certified grief counselor Sara Rich Wheeler discovered 20 years ago, the need to talk about it is tremendous. Wheeler was in charge of a new program about stillborn babies and newborn death at a Wisconsin hospital when she and a colleague were asked to speak about the topic at two national events in the late 1980s. The response to their talk was so overwhelming that they decided to take the program on the road. Now the Dean of Lakeview College of Nursing in Danville, Illinois, Wheeler often speaks to health care professionals as well as lay audiences about grief and how to cope with miscarriages and infant death.

“I’ve worked with a lot of people who have had miscarriages, and listening to them has taught me a lot. When I speak about grief I share their stories, and by doing that I can teach somebody else,” she says. In addition to real-life stories, she always tries to provide a theoretical framework for what grief really is, to help people understand the process of healing. “I work really hard, when I speak, for people to ‘get it.’ If you talk to people, especially on topics like this, and they don’t ‘get it,’ they won’t do anything about it.”

Wheeler always tries to show up to a speaking engagement an hour ahead of time, to get her audiovisuals ready and introduce herself to people as they come in. Sometimes she plays music to create a certain atmosphere and sets up some books or other things for people to put their hands on.

She also makes an effort to create a protected and safe environment, where it’s okay for people to cry if they feel the need. It’s not unusual for people to become upset or even angry when they are reminded of a situation that happened to them, Wheeler says. “Sometimes people have even gotten up and left, and if that happens I usually ask somebody to check on them. I’ve noticed some national meetings are not prepared for that, but some people get overwhelmed with emotions and they need somewhere to go.”

When speaking about grief, it’s important to choose your words carefully, Wheeler says. Words that are routinely used among health care professionals often come across as insensitive to a lay audience, like “incinerating” when talking about cremating the remains of a fetus, or “spontaneous abortion” when talking about a miscarriage.

Often, people in the audience want to share their experiences with grief as well, and if there is time Wheeler tries to accommodate that need. This can be risky, however, since she doesn’t know what people are going to say or how long it will take. “I want to recognize what people have to say, but I don’t let them dominate the session,” she says. “I try to be tactful about it.”

Wheeler, who hasn’t lost a child herself, says her training and education coupled with work experience helped immensely once she started speaking publicly about grief. She recommends that those who want to try it work hard on their credibility, possibly even by getting certified in a certain area or publishing a book.

“If you’re going to be speaking about this, you’d better have the facts right. If you mispronounce words or misstate the facts, it ruins your credibility,” she says. “And when you start speaking to people who work in this area, they may ask some very intricate and complicated questions. You need to have the background and experience to answer them, or the humbleness to say that you’re not sure and turn to somebody in the room who might have an answer. If I don’t know the answer, I don’t fake it.”

Sara Rich Wheeler lives in Indiana and is the co-author of When a Baby Dies: A Handbook for Healing and Helping, and Goodbye My Child

Linda McGurk is a communications specialist and freelance writer based in Indiana. Reach her at www.mcgurkmedia.com.