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Last Update: 10/13/2013 8:28 AM
By Mary Casagrande
“If you look at statistics, people’s fears include losing their job, then death, and then public speaking! So I’m not alone!” says Zach Matheson, Mali 2011-2012, of his own anxieties around public speaking and it’s number one ranking among general fears. It’s hard to comprehend when you really think about it. When trying to wrap his brain around that concept comedian Jerry Seinfeld quipped, “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Funny, yet true. Like Matheson, many people experience some type of anxiety or fear of public speaking. Yet, he wanted to tackle this fear.
After all, Matheson had already been a Peace Corps Volunteer. “I knew that I was able to handle myself in Mali and that was one of the big things I went there for.” So upon his stateside return, he was ready to try a new challenge- public speaking.
“It’s really important in our society today,” says Matheson, “and that was my main purpose for going to the [RPCV Story Telling] workshop.”
In late July 2013, NorCal Peace Corps Association hosted a story telling workshop lead by Alexander Labinov a gifted story teller who has been featured on KQED’s Snap Judgment.
“Alex is a self-taught story teller, ” says Matheson, “he was passionate and well-spoken. He taught us a lot of good techniques.” Once the workshop attendees had some basic skills, it was time to start crafting their stories. Matheson’s obvious first choice was his about a bus ride that turned into a robbery, a story he later titled “The French Connection.”
“This was definitely one of the take home stories of my service… this was one of the few really, extremely memorable moments,” explains Matheson.
But like most RPCVs, translating the memories and emotions of what happened during service into a story we can tell others, especially others who are not RPCVs, is not as easy as it sounds.
“It was really interesting to see how difficult it is to tell a story honestly,” says Matheson. He had two key details to his story. One was the pivotal moment when the conversation turned to a robbery, and the second was exact phrase that he used to turn the tables back around (listen to his story here to find out what it was).
Other than that, Matheson says “I didn’t remember the exact words of the conversation and that was a huge part of my story.” He describes remembering the feelings, and the main points, but the rest he had to fill in from scratch. “We don't take in our experiences as stories, we take them in as real life, in all its nitty, gritty details. It's the storyteller's job to curate those details, parsing out what's essential to the meaning of an experience, to its truth and for engaging the audience as much as possible.”
Zach at Sept 2013 Story Jam
The workshop attendees took two months to craft and practice their stories before the September RPCV Story Slam, where they then took to the stage armed with their experiences, wits, and newly acquired story-telling skills.
Matheson nailed it. Like any good storyteller, he told an entertaining tale while maintaining the integrity of what really did occur on that bus ride.
Matheson hopes to tell more stories about his service. “This is my first real foray into the 3rd goal,” says Matheson. “I expect some good to come of the stories that I tell people about my service, but I don’t know.”
But like many other RPCVs, the biggest success in this story is not the story itself, but what Matheson overcame as a result of his service and return trip home.
“I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to this workshop had I not been in Peace Corps,” says Matheson. “I guess that sounds a little self-centered… because I’m saying I went to Peace Corps and I got to tell this really awesome story. But it’s so much more than the story. It’s about confronting this fear that I have had for my entire life of speaking in front of a bunch of people. I can directly trace becoming a better person back to Peace Corps through this storytelling experience.”
Join NorCal Peace Corps Association for the Volunteer Scary Story Slam on October 30 and watch the events calendar for future workshops.