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Out of Africa

#76 - 10/01/2005

"Man's passion to communicate and to receive communications seems as central to his success as a species as the fin to the fish or the feather to the birds."
– David Attenborough
Naturalist, Author, Film maker
from Smithsonian Magazine

Years ago I splurged on a tour of Kenya's game parks – a sort of 'carpeted safari' from one expensive hotel to another. At Tsavo, a huge preserve in the savanna south of Nairobi, the hotel was built next to a water hole where the animals gathered to drink. We tourists could sit, safe and comfortable, on our shaded private balconies with our vodka tonics and watch the lower orders of the animal world as they struggled to survive.

Toward evening I became fascinated by a herd of impala, about twenty females – the harem of a single, magnificently crowned male – as they approached the water hole to drink. They were being harassed by four hyenas who prevented their getting to the water. The impala formed a circle in the tall grass, each individual facing out watchfully. The hyenas surrounded them and from time to time one or another would make a feint at the herd, obviously trying to separate one of the antelope from the group so it could be attacked and devoured. The impala would shift the circle to bring more sharp hooves to bear on the attacker who would then break off the charge. The impala would then restore the circle and make a sort of coughing bark to one another to signal that the circle was still intact. The hyenas were also 'talking' to one another with their ghastly cackles.

It was a stalemate. The hyenas could not break up the herd, but the impala could not get to the water. The sun went down and the standoff continued in nearly total darkness. It was quite a radio drama. Time and again we could hear the sounds of: a hyena charging through the grass, the warning bark of an impala, followed by a sudden scurry of the herd to defend, then a stillness as all parties listened intently, then reassuring coughs from around the circle that all was still well, and the frustrated cackles from the hyenas. This went on for hours. Soon the other tourists had retreated behind sliding glass doors to their civilized beds, but I sat on, transfixed.

The tension was palpable and relentless. I found myself deeply moved that these antelope lived their lives at this degree of focus and attention, suffering the fear of mortal danger for hours — just to get a drink of water. When I went to bed after midnight, the standoff was still unresolved. The next morning there was no carcass on the ground, so I assume that the herd eventually managed to out-wait their attackers and succeed in slacking their thirst.

What possible relevance does this have for speakers, you are asking yourself? I thought of this scene recently when wondering about the origins of stage fright. Surely we humans, in the dim beginnings of our development as a species, must have encountered similar situations to the one those antelope faced. There's safety in numbers. That was certainly the reason we primates developed social bonds. Our language surely evolved from the alert coughs of the antelope herd. The danger of leaving the group, standing apart and alone, must be the origin of stage fright.

At some remote point in our evolution as social animals, an individual stepped forward voluntarily, in spite of this fear, and claimed the role of leader. This dramatic moment echos in every speech and presentation, every act of politics or war, every performance, religious celebration and work of art. Through courage in overcoming that knot of dread in the pit of the belly, we humans have crossed the gulf between the brutal grassland of Africa and the balcony of that hotel.

How can it help us as speakers to become aware of these ancient patterns? I think in two ways. First, we can rest from resisting the fear as old as humanity itself. It will always be there at the moment we rise to speak, and to make ourselves wrong for feeling anxious is both useless and destructive. Secondly, as speakers it is our task to lead. That anxiety which keeps the mass of followers in their place highlights the courage and pride of those who rise and step forward. There is a bonus for the brave: the anxiety fades quickly and is soon replaced by the nourishing encouragement of our audiences.


Something to Ponder

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today, --"Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood."--Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."

– from Self-Reliance by
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, poet and philosopher

©2005 Michael F. Landrum