Public Speaking 101: a lesson about saving lives

I knew at some point along my journey of gun safety that I’d be speaking publicly. That petrified me, even though I recently took a workshop to prepare for speaking. The class was giving me platform-building tools, something writers need. Oh, did I mention that I tanked when it was my turn to stand up in front of the class and deliver an impromptu speech? Yeah, I literally said, “I pass.” And no bit of encouragement from the instructor could change my mind.

Of course, since I backed away from that challenge, I got another. I was contacted by the leader of Mom’s Demand Action here in Austin. Would I speak at the Fifth Anniversary of Sandy Hook ceremony? I was honored, but it still scared the bejesus out of me. The meeting was at a downtown church. I hoped I wasn’t expected to preach.

If you were hiding under a rock when Sandy Hook happened, on a day in 2012 a mentally ill young man shot 20 children and six adults at an elementary school. That day fell three years after Jon’s death, and I can still feel the hairs on what I call my God bumps rising on my arms. I tried to fathom the horrors happening to them, but mostly I felt my own loss. I couldn’t block that image of those mothers and their pain, though. The next day I felt an urgency to do something. It was the first time I’ve ever written to a President. The letter I received back felt more like a reply to fan mail, and that official piece of letterhead ended up in the trashcan.

I was discouraged, but not enough to throw in the towel. Instead, I subscribed to some gun safety sites. That’s when I first looked into Mom’s Demand Action. But I wasn’t sure if I would fit in. I was worried about my gun-owning family, and what MDA might think. I just wanted to protect children.

Earlier this year I found the courage to go to an anti-gun rally, and then blog about it. Next, the MDA meetings, and now this candlelight vigil for gun violence. It would be my first public speech as a survivor. You only get to do something for the first time once. I wanted to make it count.

Gun violence didn’t kill my son. Everything out there today refers to gun violence, from Sandy Hook to Las Vegas and all of the world in between. I need a phrase that fits accidents that can be prevented. I need a phrase that calls attention to negligence and recklessness. I need a phrase that will save lives without needing to make guns illegal, because we need to change lots of lives.

I’d love to hear your ideas about that phrase. Right now it feels like gun negligence, because 164,000 people have died from gun accidents since Sandy Hook. Coming soon to my Twitter-verse: #gunnegligence.

What happened to Jon was a violent death, I know. It was also a moment that could have passed by without taking his life. I believe this strongly enough to say it in front of people who want to take guns from our lives. My message is kind of lost in translation, for now. I’m working on it, though, and one early step was giving my speech.

It was scary because I was afraid I’d make a mistake and people wouldn’t listen. I worried in the car with my go-to, ol’ faithful friend Susan. She let me lean on her in that first anti-gun rally and so I leaned on her in the wings while I waited to talk. I got shushed before I whispered with Susan during the opening song. I felt better when the songwriter said she was scared too. Like she was going to ask us to forgive her if she forgot the words and messed up a guitar chord. I was in a place where everybody was a little new at sharing their stories.

I made it to that podium with my speech in hand. The meeting leader asked if I’d let her stand beside me while I spoke. She might’ve known I was nervous, and I messed up my first line. Once I was speaking, though, my heart took over. I even improvised a little, sharing the names of a few books Jon loved to read. I heard the applause, I saw the tears. I hope I touched hearts in the room.

After my speech, two women running for Congress wanted to talk with me. It was the first conversation I’ve ever had with any candidate running for office. Kathi Thomas running for District 25 has a high-school daughter. Kathi’s already giving the New Talk, telling her little girl to ask questions about the guns that come into her life. She’s also asking her friends about gun safety in their homes—before her daughter is allowed to come visit. It was everything I wanted to hear.

If Kathi wins office and sees a chance to make a difference in safety, I’d like to believe my first speech helps her do the work to save our children. It’s all I can hope for, right now. I’ll speak anywhere people will listen and in the meantime, you’ll hear my voice here.

Peace on earth, and good will toward men, and women, and children.

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