Attracted by the opportunity for non-involvement, many of AA's newest members speak fondly of attending speakers' meetings in their first weeks and months. The quiet description of many of the details of an alcoholic's drinking history presented in such a meeting was sure to strike a familiarity which later led to the famous camaraderie of our program.
Hopefully, as the days flew by and the period of sobriety increased, this new AA became more comfortable with briefly sharing parts of his own story in open discussion and Big Book meetings. Of course, his sponsor accompanied him through this journey, suggesting ways to improve his effectiveness and reviewing the unwritten protocol which guides AA's as they share.
However, at some point --almost never a point which might be considered particularly comfortable for a newer member -- he is invited to share a longer account of his story in the format of a speakers' meeting presentation. On one side he is tormented by the philosophical theme of AA to "never say no," and on the other side he is terrified with the prospect of standing before a group of attendees relating his own experiences for an hour.
An hour which, at first, seems as if it were going to be several days long. It is a great time for the sincere sponsor to come to his aid.
Few people walking the streets -- alcoholic or not -- would find the prospect of speaking for an hour very comfortable, at all. All those speech classes in Junior High School seem to vaporize into nothingness, offering no solace whatsoever. Further, the new man's experience in various speakers' meetings may have included talks which were either riddled with lack of confidence or delivered with what appeared to be unmatchable, exquisite oratory abilities.
Even the old idea of pretending that the audience is dressed only in their underwear doesn't seem to help much!
The sponsor can immediately offer a great bit of comfort to this situation. First, the new man's fearful experience of watching a fellow AA struggle with the task can be set aside. A proper amount of preparation and practice will inevitably pay dividends, not only with the effectiveness and organization of your sponsee's story, but also with his ability to deliver his story well.
Also, that "audience of strangers" can include a few of his good AA friends! Seeing their faces there will undoubtedly be reassuring as he proceeds with his task. Remind him that many of the AA's in his audience will be folks from the meetings he has been attending. Delivering a talk at one or two speakers' meetings will almost always provide a real incentive to get to know more and more of the anonymous faces with whom we share our experience, strength and hope daily. His talk will be a great opportunity to "break the ice" and fire up a conversation with some of these members in the days and meetings later.
As other AA's hear his account of his alcoholic history and recovery, other members get to know a great deal more about him. Redux has emphasized previously the wonderful sensation of being with a group of sober alcoholics who are acquainted with his own journey as he "joins the family" of AA. When we sit in AA meetings together regularly, most of our worst secrets "lose their teeth" -- sooner or later, we will hear another AA give an account of the similar experiences. Taking the opportunity to tell one's entire alcoholic story to such future friends is a great way to start.
Finally, there is the problem of simply "not being able to speak." This difficulty often far surpasses the obvious situation of not having much experience at delivering a talk. It ranges from the predictable stage fright "nightmare movies of everyone leaving the meeting disgusted to some worse, horrible -- also imaginary -- thought of being critically judged by every small group of the audience at coffee afterwards. This is a good time to ask your sponsee just exactly what he was thinking as he watched a poorly delivered speaker's meeting talk made by someone else. With the increased decency and compassion which accompanies our recovery, he will understand your point.
A noted historian once made the following suggestion to a teacher. If a thousand years of history were to be presented in a single hour long class, he proposed the following division of time. The first five hundred years of history should be presented in the first fifteen minutes; the next three hundred years in the following fifteen minutes; the next one hundred fifty years in the next fifteen minute segment, and the final fifty years in the last fifteen minute segment.
A similar organization can work well for the content of a speakers' meeting talk. Of course, your sponsee will want to include all the important parts of his story, but assigning each part to a reasonable length of his time can provide an effective structure which will serve to both "keep things moving" and still cover the essentials. Dividing the time line of your sponsee's account into roughly what was suggested by the historian is a good start.
Too much of a "qualifying" story about the miseries and consequences of living with the untreated disease can become tedious. Not enough will leave the audience wondering why your sponsee came to AA in thef irst place. Worse, sometimes we AA's seem to have a suspicious appetite to make accounts of the gravity of our drinking history competitive, exaggerating certain spectacular calamities with the aim of "being even worse" than the last guy and receiving an even more "miraculous" and unlikely recovery.
A thorough description of the events which led the speaker to his first AA meeting might make a solid "landmark" for dividing the first and second of the fifteen minute segments. Naturally, including the story of a few of the continuing difficulties which lingered after the end of alcoholic drinking can go a long way to encourage audience members who have just become sober.
However, part of this second fifteen minutes might best be dedicated to the exciting promise of new hope and relief the speaker experienced when he realized that AA could actually deliver the promise of stable and successful sobriety. The story of acquiring a sponsor, beginning the transformation to a spiritual life and the warm security of those earliest AA meetings are always beneficial to the newer members in the audience.
"We are average Americans. All sections of this country and many of its occupations are represented, as well as many political, economic, social, and religious backgrounds. We are people who normally would not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful. We are like the passengers of a great liner the moment after rescue from shipwreck when camaraderie, joyousness and democracy pervade the vessel from steerage to Captain's table. Unlike the feelings of the ship's passengers, however, our joy in escape from disaster does not subside as we go our individual ways. The feeling of having shared in a common peril is one element in the powerful cement which binds us. But that in itself would never have held us together as we are now joined.
The tremendous fact for every one of us is that we have discovered a common solution. We have a way out on which we can absolutely agree, and upon which we can join in brotherly and harmonious action. This is the great news this book carries to those who suffer from alcoholism." (BB p17)
As to the content of the third fifteen minutes, we must assume here that the speaker has either completed his step work or, at least, made a promising start on it. Sharing some of the specifics results of working steps is always a strong addition to a speaker's story. Although the newer members in the audience constantly hear about the "necessity of taking the steps," this part of the talk offers a great opportunity to explain exactly "what happened" when those steps were taken! A few personal accounts of individual step work and the corresponding results will cover a lot of ground for AA's who may not have yet decided to undertake step work with a sponsor.
Instances of difficulties which arose during step work can also be quite helpful. The understanding that other AA's have faced similar obstacles during the process can provide important perspective and encouragement to those in the audience who may be in similar situations. Most of us know the discouragement that accompanies such "road blocks" when we thought that we were the only AA's who ever encountered them.
It may also be important to remember that the talk's content should embrace many of the same challenges that other sober AA's may be facing. These may well include some rather personal issues of romance, money, legal troubles and soon. The speaker may be reluctant to share such matters, but his sponsor can assist in several ways.
The public sides of these troubles which can be directly attributed to the disease are certainly relevant parts of the story which can be beneficially shared, while, on the other hand, details which might best be reserved for private sponsorship meetings can be tastefully avoided without inflicting much harm on the talk's frankness. The experience of a sincere sponsor is invaluable in such matters.
The last fifteen minutes might best be dedicated to an account of applications. Applying all parts of the AA program, perhaps most specifically all the changes brought forth by step work, can be a continuing challenge to sober AA's. Of course, a robust description of your sponsee's sober life should also be part of his talk, but especially important will be associating those successes with the application of AA program ideas in each case.
The work done by an alcoholic in the AA program certainly has educational and theoretical elements, but the "boots on the ground" effect of AA style sobriety and recovery -- augmented with specific examples -- explains that action is the part which will finally deliver the prize. The longer format of a speakers' meeting talk is an opportunity to not only really describe a few applications of AA program ideas, but also the actions which resulted. These might be stories which would have required too much time in an open discussion meeting.
"But this is not all. There is action and more action. 'Faith without works is dead.' The next chapter is entirely devoted to Step Twelve." (BB p88)
Here, the sponsor's experience with delivering his own speakers' meeting talks can really make a difference. The sincere sponsor, while recognizing the benefits of such a task, will also recall the trepidation he felt the first time he presented his story. A few ideas extracted from the often discounted "Toastmasters" club can be very useful.
Index cards are a real advantage for the AA who is a little "rattled" by the prospect of speaking. The rules are simple. First, not too many. A good choice is a maximum of around four or five small index cards. Each "item" on a card should contain the least number of words which can successfully serve to remind the speaker of some part of his story. Most of what is said as the speaker delivers his talk should be impromptu with the index cards acting solely as a reminder of some of the most important points.
Examples of very abbreviated topics on an index card make the "impromptu" idea a bit clearer:
If much more about each topic of the speech were written on these index cards, there might bean inclination to read the notes rather than "speak from the heart."
If the podium for the meeting does not face a convenient clock, a speaker should have a watch or cell phone (on "mute!") in plain sight. Even though your sponsee may assume that he might run out of things to say, the opposite is almost always the case. The watch can keep his delivery plan on schedule. When we are speaking about our favorite topic -- ourselves -- "dead air" seldom turns out to be a problem.
Nervousness can cause a "dry mouth" serious enough to make speaking very difficult. Chewing gum is "off the table," and smoking while speaking is seldom as calming as one might hope. However, a small bottle of drinking water will usually fill the bill. Of course, too much drinking water can cause its own problems. The talk is going to last about one hour. How thirsty is he likely to get?
Finally, a full rehearsal in front of a sponsor is probably the best preparation possible. This may include more than one "run through" for the speech. Two or even three hours of practice at delivering the speech can make all the difference in the world. It increases confidence, works out any lingering difficulties with content and seems to "hone off the worst of the rough edges" which might arise otherwise.
Perhaps most importantly,the practice of delivering the talk before a sponsor is an opportunity for a little "outside review." Even an AA who has only begun his step work can appreciate the value of having another "pair of eyes" considering what he is saying, and the comments of a trusted sponsor with respect to his planned talk are no exception.
Although at least one practice delivery with a sponsor is a good idea (for content), a subsequent practice with a close AA friend can also be useful (for delivery). If your sponsee doesn't have and AA friends, tell him to get some.
All sorts of individualized additions can be made to such a talk. A judicious amount of humor is usually a good idea, but so are a few words of brave, heartfelt frankness. The AA tradition of speakers' meeting talks shows our newest members that the catastrophes from our past really can lose their spirit crushing implications in recovery.
From the Promises of Step 9: "We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it." (BBp83)
A calm expectation that the talk will turn out well may be the most valuable part of effective sponsorship for a nervous, inexperienced AA facing his first challenge of speaking. We have all had those occasions when we have inflated something actually rather straight forward into a grave, "life or death" test. As sponsors, we must remember that this may be the case with our own sponsee.
As usual, clear headed thinking, the continuum idea of a wide variety of imperfect but quite acceptable outcomes and the steady encouragement to "keep moving forward" will carry the day. Emphasizing the importance of the task, including the benefits he received from listening to speakers in his own sobriety, will serve to further strengthen his resolve and his determination to "give back," performing a useful service in AA's spiritual theme of helpfulness to other alcoholics.
"This is our twelfth suggestion: Carry this message to other alcoholics! You can help when no one else can." (BB p89)
Last but not least, a sponsor can honestly address the idea that his sponsee's second speakers' meeting talk, aside from improving from all his conclusions about his first, will become much more comfortable for him. The experience part of "experience, strength and hope" includes the quiet joy and satisfaction which derives from meeting one's responsibilities in our program.
"We have entered the world of the Spirit. Our next function is to grow in understanding and effectiveness." (BBp84)