Words from the heart

The nerve-wracking morning of a bar or bat mitzvah will eventually be all that’s left standing between a student and his or her catered night of extravagant partying. The b’nai mitzvah coach already has helped detangle the Hebrew and trope, but the pressure of reading the Torah portion and haftarah, as well as delivering a speech in front of hundreds of family members, friends and congregants, might make even a usually unassuming bimah look terrifying.

That’s where Jane Jacobs of Speak the Speech comes in. An experienced communication coach, Jacobs provides performance training to public speakers—from corporate professionals to brides and grooms. She also works independently with b’nai mitzvah students across the San Fernando Valley. What she offers is quite different from the Hebrew-focused preparation of a b’nai mitzvah coach; it aims to create performances and speeches that leave remarkable impressions.

Whatever You’re Feeling Is What Your Listeners Get

Jacobs, a trained actor and singer, believes in the power of building any performance from the inside out. Of initial importance in this process is pinpointing the true motivations behind a young adult’s desire for a bar or bat mitzvah. If a teenager is acting only out of obligation or pressure, he or she may be unlikely to give a heartfelt speech or reading; personalized meaning and passion must be woven into every step of the performance.

“If you give a word meaning, the rest takes care of itself,” Jacobs said. “You’ve got to connect with your meaning first. If you connect with your meaning, you’ll connect with your listeners.”

A Little Fear Is Healthy

According to national surveys, the fear of public speaking tops fears of illness, flying, terrorism and even death itself.

“In other words, at a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy,” comedian Jerry Seinfeld has joked.

Jacobs points out that, although partially a self-fulfilling prophecy in our culture, the fear of public speaking stems from the fact that a speaker’s body, voice and presence is left completely vulnerable to judgment.

Genuine confidence during a speech or Torah reading may be a great line of defense, but fear doesn’t always have to play the role of the enemy. Jacobs emphasizes that, when channeled correctly, a little stage fright is actually good for a performance.

“Adrenaline expresses itself in many ways: One is fear, one is excitement,” she said. “Which do you want to choose? It’s the same chemical.”

The type of energy created by converting anxiety into excitement often works to keep speakers on their toes and fully present during a rare moment that begs to be savored.

Winging It Is for the Birds

Preparation fosters the very confidence vital to all the day’s feats: a meaningful speech, a smooth performance, a feel-good sense of excitement and a relative amount of relaxation in an otherwise stressful situation.

“If you’ve rehearsed this thing enough, you’ve rehearsed successes,” Jacobs reminds her students.

Aside from repetitive practice, Jacobs encourages young people to set themselves up for success in every way, from the clothes they wear (“Dress for the part”) to what they eat and drink before standing up in front of an entire congregation.

Success Is Not Going to Be Perfection

Even the most prepared, articulate and confident student is fair game for the occasional slip-up—but it doesn’t matter. As with any public performance, many elements are out of a performer’s control, and audiences are particularly quick to forgive mistakes after they’ve been successfully distracted by something truly moving.

“People don’t remember what you tell them; they remember how you made them feel,” Jacobs said. “If you make a mistake [but] you’ve got them in the palm of your hand, they won’t even remember it.”

Ruminating on insignificant performance details not only diminishes the much higher importance of meaningful emotion, it also tends to be a fairly certain way to instantly kill a speaker’s focus.

The Parents’ Speeches Are Just As Important

Jacobs tells the story of one bar mitzvah student whose parents’ performance on the big day was just as shaky as their child’s: “It was time for the parents’ speech. The son was looking for approval in the room, the mother was looking at her notes—looking up and dropping her eyes and reading off the piece of paper—and the father stuck his hands in his pockets and rambled for 15 minutes. I don’t know what he said!”

In Jacobs’ experience, problems like severe stage fright tend to become more deeply ingrained in adults over time. Parents could take a cue from their kids by using the same methods of practice—and even coaching—to bring their own speeches to a heightened standard. The entire event will come together beautifully when every speech moves the listener. Maybe more important, if a bar or bat mitzvah is looking for an example of an effective and confident performer to emulate, who better than Mom and Dad?

For more information about Jane Jacobs and Speak the Speech, visit speak-speech.com