Like most beach vacationers who saw the movie “Jaws”, I think way too much about sharks. In 1974, when “Jaws” debuted, I was a 16 year-old working on Martha’s Vineyard. Seeing that movie was a BIG mistake, since it had been filmed right where I was working and playing. I hardly swam that summer. I’d dive into waves and the movie score would start running in my head. I’d flail back to shore, completely terrified. It was so embarrassing. Finally, my friend’s father stopped the madness, saying, “I believe that when my time comes, my time comes. You can’t let these fears stop you from living your life.” (These same words comforted me greatly when 12 years later he died suddenly from a heart attack). Still, the exploding seal population on the Cape, and the increased sightings of great whites (that apparently have always swum on these waters), scares me.
What sticks with me is the son’s story. He and his dad were a few hundred yards out from the beach swimming through deep water toward a sand bar. The son describes the surreal movie-like quality of the experience, seeing the fin, the shark below, his father’s shout for help and their frantic swim to shore. He describes the deep gratitude he felt when they were sitting on the beach, all limbs intact (dad got 47 stitches) and a jaws of death sentence averted – their joyous disbelief at the unexpected ending to the movie that plays in all of our minds. Who wouldn’t feel the same way?
I use a shark metaphor in my work with clients. Everyone feels a degree of vulnerability standing before 10’s, 100’s or 1000’s of audience members. And we just can’t communicate well when we feel unnaturally exposed. While it might be nice to put on a protective suit-of-armor, unfortunately, in public speaking the armor has to be metaphorical. The self-protective vision needs to be porous, open, visible so that two-way communication can happen. Think shark nets, like they use on the beaches in Australia. These nets are designed to keep the sharks out of swimming areas while still allowing water to flow in and out. And while the actual efficacy of the nets themselves is disputed, the metaphor works, because this dark fear is very real for 99% of us.
I know that sharks are deeply misunderstood. Humans are not a dietary mainstay, more likely a bite and flight mistake. And in the same way, I think most audiences are not really made up of sharks. As speakers, we fight a deep evolutionary response that feels as real as a great white.
So swim and speak sensibly, but enjoy the water and your audience this summer.
Here is the 2 minute 30 second clip. It’s the only one I could find that isn’t full of advertisements and commentary. Sadly, in this clip, you can not hear the interviewer’s question, but do wait for the responses from father and son.