Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Butterfly Effect and My Best Student EVER!

The January 8 shootings in Tucson sparked a national debate about the relationship between words and actions. This debate has inspired me to share about my Best Speaker EVER!
It was Fall Quarter 2010, I was teaching Public Speaking for Professionals and, after 25 years of teaching, my syllabus was moving along smoothly. There were over 20 students in the course and it was time for Firouzeh (fih-roo-say) Banki to give her first speech.

"In quantum physics, there's a phenomenon called 'the butterfly effect.' When a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, it may cause a hurricane in Brazil a month later. A single small change in one part of the world can be the trigger for huge alterations in another place and time. "

Her opening words snapped me to attention.

"Last year at this time, I was going through a very rough time in my life... and my heart was broken."

I hadn't expected to hear such a personal revelation and her words struck a chord. Firouzeh began weaving a story about the miraculous healing of her broken heart. She spoke slowly and with feeling - describing the entrance of an orange and black butterfly into her life, its injured wing and their growing relationship.

"I get the courage to put my finger underneath her body. Amazingly, she wraps her little legs (like hairs) around it. I start talking to her and she starts shaking... I bring her close to my face and start whispering. I notice her big eyes and we have eye contact. I tell her I am not here to hurt her. I will help her as long as she trusts me. Believe it or not, in that moment, she stopped shaking!"

Then Firouzeh's observations shift into a question, with startling revelations.

"How did this butterfly end up in my house? All of a sudden, it dawns on me, she is a reflection of me! Her wing is broken and so is my heart. She is afraid of not being able to fly and I am afraid of not being able to love again."

In that moment, Firouzeh vows to keep the butterfly alive and learns - if it is to survive - she must get it to fly. After 48 hours of feeding nectar to her multi-colored guest and throwing it into the air, Firouzeh's butterfly is strong enough to fly away.

"I don't know if the flapping of her wings caused a hurricane in Brazil, but I know she changed my life. She made me look at Mother Nature from a different perspective - to see how we take this planet and its beauty for granted. That butterfly was not just an insect; she came into my life for a reason... She gave me courage... If she can fly with a broken wing, then I can do anything! She made me believe in love again. Love comes from the most unexpected places and when it does, it conquers everything, including broken wings and broken hearts."

When Firouzeh ended, I was practically speechless - the deep unison of word, thought and feeling, as if her soul was speaking - had shaken me loose from my comfortabale expectations of the familiar, taken us through a metamorphosis and raised the bar for everyone.

After that first speech, each time she stood before us, Firouzeh astonished. During our final session, when everyone receives an award that has been voted on by the class, she of course received a Best Speaker award. But I also created a Best Speaker EVER! award for her, which had never before occurred to me to do. This was a new moment.

Later, I wanted to learn more - what was there in Firouzeh's process and background that I could pass on to others? When I interviewed her, she revealed how she prepared for class and some of the mystery began to clear.

To overcome her "heart in the throat, knees shaking, voice trembling" fear of English and of public speaking, here are the steps she took -
  • First, she only speaks on what she feels passionate about
  • Then, she writes out every word and tapes herself reading it 10 to 20 times
  • Each time she tapes, she listens and makes changes in her writing
  • She also practices in the mirror
  • Next, she comes early to class and does 3 or 4 runthroughs in the empty room
  • Then she sits silently and focuses on her breathing, until the other students begin arriving
  • Finally, during the class, she practices with other students

After I shared this process with my current class, a student copied it and had immediate results. Also, this rigorous process reminds me of the heroine of my SPEAK WITH PASSION, SPEAK WITH POWER!, Anne Reeves, who also developed herself into an award-winning speaker by transforming her acute anxiety through hard work into mastery.

I wanted to know more. What were the connections between the little girl who was born in Iran and the Best Speaker EVER! in my classroom? Firouzeh's background offers some insights. Until she was 15, she lived with her family in Iran. Although surrounded by religious extremism, there was religious freedom in her home. She and her 2 sisters were expected to excel in school and in life. When revolution erupted, her family escaped to Spain and eventually Firouzeh relocated to Montreal, where she became fluent in French and completed university, then dental school. She shared that her education in Iran and in dental school involved much memorization - which, together with her lack of confidence in her self-taught English - explained why she wrote out her speeches first and then, through drilling, became one with her words (By the way, her English pronunciation and grammar are almost perfect and completely unobtrusive).

Other events - marriage, motherhood, divorce - brought her to Los Angeles and a path of deepening self-discovery and greater self-expression. As the black and orange butterfly had been led to Firouzeh, so she was led to my classroom and into a new future. Unpredictably, she is now taking a creative writing course and has volunteered to speak to my classes, which I intend to take her up on.

Shakespeare wrote, "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature." Speaking IS action... which brings me back to the Tucson debate and points to another question:

When Firouzeh flapped her wings in Los Angeles, did it cause a hurricane in Egypt?

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