Most of the programs I’m running at Fairview Library take place in the program room. With two walls of glass it’s basically a glass ‘box’ on the first floor. Everyone coming in and out of the library passes the program room.

It’s a favorite for people to use for quiet study. The glass walls muffle noise. It’s peaceful and there are outlets and tables and chairs.

I always set up by the big chalkboard, towards one of the solid walls so that the people I’m teaching have their backs facing the glass walls.

This way there is nothing to upstage me.

They don’t see the spectators, who stop by and gawk through the glass walls at me, while I’m presenting. They don’t see these spectators then go to the schedule that’s posted outside the door and see what’s going on, what program I’m running.

And yet the spectators don’t come in.

They just watch me, and I imagine what they see, this highly animated Muslim woman, gesticulating with her hands, marching to the blackboard and jotting down notes, often underlining points with vehemence to illustrate the importance of them in the grand scheme of what she’s trying to say.

And when I picture it from their point of view, I smile.

I must look odd indeed.

I was doing the second of three sessions on Public Speaking on Tuesday. I’ve taken a very different approach to the subject.

Instead of bombarding them with the obvious, I’ve been working on voice. Intonation, inflection, enunciation, and talking about the best use of powerpoint.

The problem is that the attendance isn’t always steady.

These are free workshops and when people don’t pay for a workshop they will often attend sporadically–I mean they’re not losing anything right?

Last Tuesday I had a new lady attend, and I was dealing with powerpoints and I ended up illustrating the issues I was covering by showing them my Roses presentation.

All the people were immigrants, so I geared the workshop to dealing with the special challenges they’re facing when they present.

Honestly just speaking English as a second language would be hard enough! Imagine trying to use your voice as an instrument with the proper inflections that naturally punctuate what you’re saying…in another language!!! I can’t imagine doing so. My Urdu is rudimentary at best. Can’t imagine actually doing a presentation in it!

So what I did was give them a very difficult exercise to do. I gave them some of the most popular poems in English literature–the old fashioned kind of poetry that actually rhymes, and I gave them the assignment to recite the poems without resorting to the rhythms.

That’s not even easy for someone like me!

But what it does is, it makes you hyper conscious of the natural tones and inflections of speech. And that was precisely the objective!

And as a result, within only two, two hour sessions, one of the ladies, a shy type, actually got comfortable enough to recite her poem and speak publicly, which is the whole point of the exercise!

It’s interesting that when you teach a subject, you actually crystallize  your own understanding of how you accomplish what you do.

I found myself telling the group that they should ‘project their personality’ to the edges of the room in which they were speaking. And I realized that this is precisely what I do. It’s the key to holding the attention of an audience.

Some performers, their performance ends at the boundaries of the stage. I was watching The Voice last night, and several of the singers were doing just that.

It’s like the audience was watching them do their own little thing, up there on the stage.

And then I thought of singers like Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam. When he sings Father and Son, it can be such a quiet song, and yet he projects his personality so strongly that it moves even the edges of the audience!

At the end of the session the new lady came up to me and said she didn’t understand why my session wasn’t jam-packed.

I just shrugged.

She said that the public speaking workshops that the library runs were some of the most popular! And there was another guy doing one and she couldn’t even get into it, it was too full. She said that he wasn’t nearly as accomplished in terms of publications and experience as I was.

I asked her what he was doing in his session and she told me he was doing basic stuff.

Then I asked her how my session compared to his and she said they were two different entities, you couldn’t compare them. But that she loved mine.

I guess I’m taking a more creative approach to the whole public speaking thing.

I’m not sure.

But it bothered me.

And I wondered if it wasn’t because I’m Muslim and the other guy was white. That might sound like I’ve got a chip on my shoulder but I think it’s only natural to wonder if it isn’t like people would be wondering, “What can I learn from her?”

And I remembered for the hundredth time, “Oh yeah. I wear hijab and I look different. It’s a stretch for some people to think that I might be competent.”

It’s so very important to keep your audience in mind.

Remember where they’re coming from and what limitations they might be operating within.

I need to remember that more because I made a faux pas.

It’s been such a learning experience dealing with the general public like this.

I’ve had some refugees in two of my sessions, both of whom had suffered persecution at the hands of Muslims in their native countries.

In one part of one of my presentations I deal with the whole adage of ‘write what you know’. I talk about how I was trying to write stories about regular kids like ‘Bobby and Sally and Joe’, when publishers were asking me to send them stories from my cultural heritage.

Then I talked about how I got an idea to write a story about a kid who farts during the prayer (which is a big deal!). You can hear me talk about this here:

Now the thing is, one of the reasons I’ve been successful as a children’s author is because I NEVER EVER EVER preach!!!

My goodness how obnoxious would that be!!!

Naturally there are times when my cultural heritage comes into play, and it would be ridiculous to not mention it! And without understanding why farting in the prayer is a big deal, you won’t get the significance of it, so naturally I do need to do some explaining.

When I’m talking about how I became an author, I tell the story of how I wrote Fajr, because it’s relevant to the topic.

I’m basically telling the listeners that they need to write what they know!

It’s not about teaching aspects of my religion. Not at all!

But a few of the people in the workshops felt like that, and these were people who were sensitized to it because they were refugees and had been persecuted by Muslims.

They even felt as if I’d turned it into a ‘religion’ class.

So…long and short of it, I’ll have to be more careful when I include aspects of my own background in a presentation.

Even though the presentation in which I tell the Fajr story is a very popular presentation in schools, and if anyone felt I was imposing anything, teachers would (and no teacher ever has complained in such a way!), I have to be sensitive to general audiences in case they feel like this is the case.

I guess it comes down to being such a visible minority.

I have to be more guarded.

Lesson learned.

I really am in a glass box, in more ways than one.