Friday, May 18, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Minister Teresa MacBain "I am an Atheist"

Right before minister Teresa MacBain gave this speech about realizing that she was an atheist, she told NPR that not speaking up about her new beliefs made her feel the way many nervous speakers feel: "I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday's right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that's totally false." In her case, this wasn't pre-speaking jitters, but because "I lead a double life."

MacBain chose the meeting of the American Atheists in March to make public her beliefs, before a crowd of 1,500 people who gave her a standing ovation immediately after her first sentence: "My name is Teresa. I'm a pastor currently serving a Methodist church — at least up to this point — and I am an atheist." Here are three tactics you can take away from this speech:
  • Address your audience directly: Despite the national controversy connected with her announcement, MacBain doesn't forget the audience in front of her and speaks to them directly to thank them for their support and understanding, and to apologize for years of working to show "how wrong you were and how right I was." Her directness forges a strong connection and brings the issue down to a human level.
  • Stick to "I" statements: With an issue this controversial, the speaker could have made generalizations. Instead, MacBain keeps this individual and personal. No one can tell her what her feelings are or should be, and she doesn't tell anyone what theirs should be. It keeps her from, well, preaching and keeps this statement an honest one.
  • Don't describe what you don't know: Despite months talking to other clergy in the same situation online and at the conference, MacBain has to confess that she doesn't know what will happen next, and that she is somewhat afraid of what the reaction will be to her announcement. I wish more speakers would stop at the point where they meet a topic they don't know. In this case, the uncertainty hangs in the air and reflects the tension that comes along with making this public.
In fact, MacBain did see negative media coverage and comments online and in person, as well as a video that quickly went viral. You can read the NPR story about MacBain's speech here, or listen to the story here, and the video is below for you to watch (this recording is missing the first line). What do you think of this famous speech?