In high school I was required to take speech class. For a shy, clumsy kid this was a torment. The first time I stood in front of class I was shaking like a leaf. My teacher was great. She found something to praise in every one in class, however bad we were, and kept rotating us up to the podium so each of us had many chances to speak. She taught me the basics of public address: how to look at the audience, not to fix on one person but to keep my eyes moving, how to smile and seem as if I was interested in my topic, and how to organize a speech so that it flowed logically. By the end of the class I knew I could stand up in public and speak.
In every magical group there are big personalities who dominate discussion, and quieter voices, both male and female, who almost never get to be heard. Skilled group organizers who care about participation find ways to clear the floor to let the quieter voices have a moment to speak. Without a champion, less aggressive members get pushed to the side.
It’s often harder for women to fight for center stage. In traditions like ceremonial magic where the membership weights toward the masculine, women simply have fewer chances to speak. One of the groups I belong to is a ceremonial group that has thirteen members, four of whom are women (about one-third), a percentage that runs true in that magical line.
Also, in American mixed gender groups, male language tends to step on women’s turn on the floorâ€”men routinely speak while women are speaking, making it harder for women to make their points. Consequently, women’s language is tentative. We often end our sentences with a rising inflection, a question mark, inviting external validation of what we are saying (you know?). That tentativeness actively invites listeners to discount what we are saying.
One way for women magicians to develop our ability to speak is to participate in woman-only groups. The Women’s College Coalition notes that in single-sex colleges women fill all leadership roles, form study groups, take charge in the laboratory, and organize classroom discussion. As a consequence, students at women’s colleges are more likely to enter traditionally male fields of study like math and engineering, and graduates of single-sex colleges are significantly more likely than women graduating from co-ed institutions to become members of congress and corporate managers. Women’s colleges foster an atmosphere that supports women’s efforts while still challenging students to excel.
The same principle can work for us in magical groups with only women members. Standing in a room of women magicians, it’s as if a curtain of smoke has lifted, and I can see and hear the other women in the room clearly in a way that mixed groups rarely permit. In single-sex groups I have talked to women who were literally small, whose voices were quiet, whose hunched shoulders telegraphed the expectation of not being taken seriously. I have heard a quiet woman’s voice gain strength and become confident, louder, roaring, lion-like in its intensity.
Declaiming is one of the fundamental magical powers. Egyptian priests and priestesses spent some months in the temples and then rotated out to spend time in their villages, where they were called upon to speak the prayer spells for planting and harvest at communal gatherings. They were acting on behalf of the community, and at the same time performing in front of the community.
Whenever I get the chance I encourage women in particular, and soft-spoken magicians in general, to cultivate speaking skillsâ€”take a class on making presentations, sit on a panel at a convention, check out a speechwriter’s web page and YouTube videos.
People tell me that they are too anxious to be able to speak in public. Even after all these years I still get nervous before a presentation! Iâ€™ve learned to manage that with a number of tricks and techniques from the training Iâ€™ve received and that I have learned from experience. Itâ€™s a truism among musicians that rehearsing calms nerves because familiarity with the material instills confidence. When I am working up a new presentation I rehearse it by myself, then present it to my family before taking it to an audience.
We can bring magical skills to bear here; breathe deeply, ground and center, and invoke a spirit, guardian, or deity. I invoke Seshat, the Egyptian goddess of womenâ€™s magical speech, whenever I make a speech, and I have the feeling that she is standing behind me, and sometimes even speaking through me. In this way public speaking becomes a magical act.
Today I remember that high school speech class with gratitude. It laid the foundation for the teaching and speaking I have done in the magical communities. Perhaps most importantly, the class taught me that everyone has something to sayâ€”all it takes is getting up and saying it, and that is a skill that everyone can learn.
Our thanks to Brandy for her guest post! For more from Brandy Williams, read her article “The Changing Face of Magic: Thinking Big Thoughts.”