I’m currently sat on the bed in my hotel room. I feel sick and my stomach is in knots. My heart is beating so hard, I’m shaking and my head is so foggy after what’s just happened. In all the talks and presentations I have done, I have never been faced with a situation I found myself in today, but I guess there was a risk it could happen at some point; I just wasnt prepared for it. I have delivered many talks in schools, colleges, universities, community groups right up to huge corporate events and conferences. Maybe naively, I never expected to be faced with this situation, and certainly not at an educational establishment.
I was invited to deliver a motivational talk at a college, with the overall message being about the importance of knuckling down and working hard at school. They wanted me to talk to students (16-18 year olds) who are currently struggling with their english course. The school hall was full with four separate classes in attendance.
I was already a little anxious because what should have been a 15 minute journey, turned into almost an hour and I ended up being late. Then I circled the college 3 times trying to find the way in. I finally parked up and made the hall with 5 minutes to spare. I had no time to come down from the drive and regroup in preparation for delivery. I also needed a wee which didn’t help! 😁
The room filled up and after a very brief intro from the head of English I was up. I delivered my talk about how I left school without any qualifications for reasons I won’t go into here. Having no qualifications made it difficult later on in life when I wanted to be a paramedic and then going for my commission to become an officer in the RAF. I had to resit maths and english and one other GCSE in order for me to progress my career. I did this but then gained a thirst for education. I now have letters after my name and a business of my own, despite being told I would never work again.
I started talking about my military career and the stumbling blocks I found due to my initial lack of qualifications. I spoke about afghanistan, my breakdown, diagnosis of PTSD and the Invictus Games. The result of the talk was about how you can achieve but you have to put the work in, the sooner the better. Also spoke about how the lack of qualifications is not a barrier for achieving but it would make most career goals easier. Overall the talk went well and at the end, a number of students and teachers came over to talk to me and shake my hand. However, when I reached the last one, he didn’t shake my hand and stood in a provocative stance. I totally get that he didn’t shake my hand because in some cultures it’s different and I accept that, but his stance made me feel a little uneasy. He started asking me why I was in the military and going over to other countries with guns and killing people. This assault lasted a few minutes before I was ‘saved’ by a teacher who tried to reason with him. The young lad was from Afghanistan so I can also see how he would be passionate about this subject, however, this was not a calm and considered discussion. I appreciate that we all have our own personal views based on our own experiences in life, and I welcome healthy debates and difference of opinion. This felt like a challenge against my choice of career though and it felt uncomfortable.
I was stunned by the barrage of questions and statements about how I should not have chosen to join the military. When I tried to explain I was a medic and was there to save lives rather than take them he just wasn’t listening. I then proceeded to say that I not only treated the soldiers but the civilians and insurgents also. Well, little did I know that this was not the best thing to say. He then started asking why I had treated the insurgents when I could have been saving innocent people who died….
Oh my goodness, even writing this is increasing my anxiety. I tried to say that we do not discriminate and we had to treat everyone. He was not happy with this either and was saying about how after 30 years at war, we should keep out of it. I said they were decisions made way above us and then thankfully the teacher intervened. I don’t mind saying I was very uneasy about the whole interaction which has left me feeling as I am now.
I think today has taught me that as speakers, we may need to consider that this could happen at any time. I have been challenged before and I welcome difference of opinion, but I’m not great at confrontations like this where clearly no real discussion was going to be had. Some seasoned speakers may say that they are used to it but I’m fairly new on the circuit. The reason it hit me so hard was because it triggered some things from my Afghanistan tours, and I have worked really hard at putting these to bed. I would caution anyone new to the speaking circuit, especially my military friends, to just be mindful that this can happen. It put me on the back foot and vulnerable but will it stop me from speaking again? Absolutely not, but I need to work on preparations to stop me being knocked off course as much as I was today.