Lesson Learned

Leora Balinsky, Speaking Fellow


This past summer, I had a scarring speaking experience.

I was spent the summer participating in a fellowship that involved rigorous Jewish textual study and analysis as well as working with the Jewish community of Sharon, Massachusetts. One element of the leadership training of the fellowship was giving the weekly 10-15 minute sermon during Shabbat prayers on Saturdays. I was tasked with speaking in front of over 300 people, sharing my thoughts and extrapolations of the Torah portion of the week.


I did not spend enough time preparing beforehand, and was not exactly sure of what I was saying until the morning of. Once it was time for me to speak, I arrived at the podium at the edge of the women’s section of the sanctuary, facing a large crowd of people about to listen to me. I started speaking, and someone from the back yelled “LOUDER!!” I heeded his command, and raised my volume. Someone else yelled “NOT THAT LOUD!!” and some people laughed. I nervously continued, shaken by both interruptions. I began speaking faster and faster, feeling at every moment that all I wanted was to be away from the podium, standing in the back of my room, uttering the holy words of the apex of the Jewish prayer service in near-silent supplication, mouthing them loudly enough only myself and God to hear, as is prescribed by Jewish law.

But alas, I was stuck at this podium, trying to convey a message that I had not worded carefully enough beforehand, stumbling over my words and not finding the right ones to make my point. Finally, it was over. I returned to my seat, shaking and disappointed in myself.


After the prayer service ended, as people were mingling in the social hall, many well-meaning adults came up to me and offered unsolicited advice. Multiple people told me I had to stop speaking so quickly. One strongly suggested that I take a public speaking course.


The experience was humiliating, but truly educational. I learned two main lessons about speaking:

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice. I was very tripped up because I was not yet sure of what I was saying, or how to say it.
  2. Do not be afraid to take up time and space. Part of the reason I rushed through my sermon was because I was unused to speaking for such a long period, unaccustomed to hearing my own voice uninterrupted for over ten minutes. This was precisely what was desired of me in my role, and even though I knew that on a cognitive level, I could not shake a sense of anxiety over taking up so much time, of forcing people to focus solely on me for so long.


Thankfully, as part of being a Speaking Fellow in Training, I did have to take a public speaking class in the form of the Rhetorical Choices course. I cannot help but imagine how the incident would have transpired had I had the tools that I have now from Speaking Fellows, and the encouragement to make my voice heard that the program provides.


If a story moves you, act on it

After Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story” came out in 2009, storytelling entered the mainstream – for good reason. It is a powerful tool that has inspired me and many others (including my fellow fellows). Certainly storytelling was not a novel idea in 2009, but its recent steady rise in popularity is something I’ve often reflected upon as a writer, organizer, and consumer of stories.

But is diverse storytelling the answer to injustice?

Sisonke Msimang, head of programs at the Centre for Stories, would answer no. In a recent talk, she uses her experiences as both writer and activist to remind us that stories, while extraordinarily valuable, actually don’t make the world a better place. They have to be supplemented with a host of other things: reliable media, factual analysis, skepticism, curiosity, and perhaps most importantly, action. This talk manages to simultaneously tell a story while warning against the dangers of storytelling, all without devaluing their importance. This is certainly a complicated task, and an incredibly relevant one in this complicated moment. She accomplishes it with resounding success. You can find her talk here – it is well worth a listen.