You know you’re passionate about what you do when you’re willing to do it for free. For me, however, volunteering is about much more than just passion. Offering my time and talents outside of work helps me stretch myself and grow in ways I never could have imagined. It’s like the expression by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimension.” I think that applies to our talents, as well.
In fact, I never learn as much as when I share with others. Here are a few examples of what I have learned.
Keep it simple
This past year I volunteered to deliver the Children’s Moments portion of my church’s service—a three-minute talk relating to the day’s message that a three-year-old can understand. This has been one of the most challenging things I have ever attempted, because I’m dealing with short attention spans but complicated concepts. To me, it’s like working without a net because I don’t have 10 or 15 minutes to pick up a concept later if no one gets what I’m talking about. I’ve learned to keep it simple.
Something I’ve been introduced to by working with youth and student groups is object lessons. In the training world, we refer to these as “props.” Simple things like a crocheted afghan, a photograph of your grandmother, or a calendar relay powerful emotional images. If you haven’t read up on the topic, check out resources on object lessons.
Silence is golden
You know those moments of awkward silence that seem to be eternal? I have found by watching and coaching others that, if you’re patient, these moments provide the greatest opportunity for participants to open up.
Remember that not everyone thinks the same way. Some people are reflective learners and have to digest information before they are ready to share. Others are afraid to be the first one to speak up until they know it is safe to do so. Yet others are simply introverted or shy. As the group leader or facilitator, it is your job to provide a safe place for everyone to contribute and to give them the opportunity to do so.
The next time you initiate a group discussion and all you hear are crickets, just wait. Everyone else in the room will hear the same silence, and it makes them just as uncomfortable. If you find waiting difficult, glance at your watch. What feels like an eternity might be only 30 seconds. Give participants at least a minute to speak up before you break the silence. If you establish a routine of answering your own questions, your participants will get comfortable letting you do that and group discussion might never occur.
They can’t read your mind
I once participated in a session where each group leader had to deliver a scripted lecture. This was new to me. I usually work from a simple outline, then wing it based on what I’ve practiced in my head. In addition, we weren’t allowed to use other tools or supporting materials or initiate group discussion.
One of my fellow group leaders was also a training professional and we shared the same concerns. We realized we’d become far too dependent upon PowerPoint, flipcharts, and other materials, and returning to a structured lecture without materials or discussion felt uncomfortable for both of us.
I was reminded of two things during this experience: Practice makes perfect, and participants can’t read your mind.
Neither my fellow trainer nor I wanted to read our talk but instead to use notes as a guide. It was OK to deviate from the script but we had to cover specific points and finish within a set amount of time. Because I had to follow a script, I practiced my talk far more than I normally would have done. In fact, I practiced this 20-minute talk far more than I’d practiced anything in years. This reminded me of how valuable it is to rehearse because of how comfortable I felt when I got up to speak.
After completing my talk, everyone told me I did a great job. Still, I had a nagging feeling I had left something out. When I reviewed my notes I realized that two of my pages had stuck together and I had omitted an entire page of my talk. Strange. I did remember looking down at one point and feeling like I was off track. I paused and created a transition to the next point without missing a beat, even though I had a moment of panic in my head.
This brought to light a key concept of public speaking. No one knows what you are going to say except you. If you don’t let them know you made a mistake, they will never know…unless you point it out. The lesson? Never apologize for your mistakes. Recover from your slip and move on. If your mistake was obvious (like the time I tripped over the phrase “asked backwards,” which made everyone giggle because of how it sounded coming out of my mouth), simply laugh at yourself and get back on track. Everyone likes a human and no one expects us to be super-human.
A labor of love
When my grandmother died, I felt that my ability to speak was a talent I had to share. In fact, I had thought about what I’d say at her funeral for years as her health had begun to decline. I saw this as a labor of love—something I wanted to do, something my family had not seen me do since I was nine years old. What I could not have planned on was my father’s dying four months before my grandmother did.
My father had been retired just a little over a year when he died suddenly from a heart attack. He was only 67. When I got the news, I went into a state of shock. We all did. My family had no idea that I’d hope to speak at my grandmother’s funeral, so they were taken aback when I volunteered to speak at my father’s. This became a moment of calm for me. Focusing on speaking put me in the eye of the storm, but I remember being so calm that my sister checked on me to make sure I was OK. My family was concerned that I wasn’t acting “normal.”
When I look back, what I remember is gathering my thoughts in the shower, then jotting them on the back of an envelope. The talk itself felt surreal, yet it was probably one of the best I’ve ever given. I felt truly blessed to share this gift with my grieving family. Because I was a starving grad student at the time, it was the most I had to give. The pastor told me afterwards he wished he’d spoken first because I was a hard act to follow.
Four months later when I spoke at my grandmother’s funeral, I was deeply flattered when the funeral home director leaned over after my talk and whispered in my ear: “If you don’t speak for a living, you should.” I smiled and nodded.
The eyes have it
We all know how important it is to find a friendly face in the crowd; to make eye contact with them, and look over to see them always smiling. We know how much that helps inspire us, right? Why not be that person for others?
Each time I am a participant, I mentally cheer on the speaker, and apparently that comes out in my body language. I recently participated in a session where I discovered my seat was front and center under the podium. Later I had people thank me for the support, and I realized I had been place front and center on purpose. The power of eye contact can be amazing. Why not help a fellow speaker or trainer out? Make eye contact with them. Smile. Nod when appropriate.
There are plenty of not-for-profit, volunteer, community, and faith-based opportunities for each of us to contribute our gifts, time, and talents. Remember that we do what we do because we enjoy it. Volunteering helps us sharpen the saw and restore our passion because the gift truly is in the giving.
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