photo: Ryan Pfeiffer/Metroland
If you’d asked Franco Scanga five years ago what his number one fear was, he’d have given you the number one answer: speaking in front of strangers.
But that was before he watched his father get cancer for the third time. It was a terrifying ordeal, one that put his own glossophobia in the shade.
“My first thought was, ‘I wish I could trade places with him,’” he says.
Then Scanga, a 40-year-old asset manager at a tech college in Oshawa, Ontario, got an idea. He couldn’t fight his father’s fight. But he could fight his own fight, in his father’s service. “My mind immediately jumped to the most extreme thing I could do.”
Three words: Public Speaking Marathon.
Scanga would double down on his own fear, and raise money for cancer research in the bargain.
Psychologists call it “flooding” — tackling a phobia by blasting yourself with a massive dose of what you fear most. If you’re frightened of snakes, you might visit a hibernaculum. If you’re frightened of clowns, you might hang out at a circus. If you’re frightened of public speaking, you might spend a day standing in front of one group of strangers after another, giving a fresh talk each time, until you’d done it more times in a single day than anyone ever has.
The Guinness World Record was 21 speeches in 24 hours, Scanga discovered. Ralph Nader set it during his 2008 Presidential run.
That’s a lot of speeches, Scanga thought. Then he thought: I can beat that.
The sheer absurdity of a man like him — “just a regular guy,” the son of a bricklayer, the farthest thing from a professional orator you could imagine — trying to knock off a record established by the fellow who persuaded America to put seatbelts in cars, well, it was so off-the-charts crazy that there seemed no downside to try. He would rustle up pledges from local service clubs. He set up a FaceBook account and announced his aim to raise $15,000 for charity.
There are a lot of moving parts to an official world-record attempt. Eighteen months out, Scanga began to tackle the logistics: secure the venues, spread the word, wrangle volunteers to help with everything from timekeeping to videotaping to chauffeuring the speaker from point to point in a rented Dodge Durango.
Scanga commenced training.
He started jumping rope, for stamina and energy.
He changed his diet: more protein, less starch and sugar.
He dialed up his meditation regime.
He researched the visualization techniques Navy Seals use as they prepare for demanding missions: imagining themselves perfectly executing their task. For Scanga, that meant visiting each venue he’d be speaking at in advance, so he could rehearse there, and then be able to steady himself on game day by reminding himself, Hey, man, you’ve done this before.
Only problem was, he had nothing yet to rehearse. He’d been working so hard on putting the event together that he hadn’t actually written any speeches. What would he talk about?
Turned out he’d been keeping a journal of everything he was learning along the way. Those journal entries would become the bones of the talks. Together they’d form a primer on Undertaking your Own Fearless Challenge, from first steps to grateful acknowledgements.
Now all he had to do was commit 230 minutes of material to memory.
Scanga imagined each speech as a house. The roof was a set-up quote. The top floor was the key message. The lower floor was a bridge to connect the abstract theme to a particular audience. In between were supporting pillars carrying his main points. At lawn level was his conclusion. So long as he started on the roof and mentally clambered down, he should be fine, he figured. Even under pressure.
He took to rehearsing immediately after his jump-rope sessions, while he was still a little out of breath. It got him used to controlling his voice and nerves to the backbeat of a hammering heart.
What if he lost his voice? He reached out to vocal coaches, who advised hydration, rest, and toning the vocal chords. He practiced “endurance nights,” where he’d string together ten or twelve speeches in a row without breaks, trying to use his whole vocal range.
Prep-wise, Scanga basically left no stone unturned.
But one thing was still beyond his control. What if he just … lost his nerve?
Here he had something powerful on his side. What distinguished Franco Scanga from the 15 people before him who had officially tried to break Nader’s record and failed was the Why. He had a better Why. This whole enterprise, it was not about him. It was about his Dad. It was a gift to everyone who has ever fought cancer, and every one of their friends and family who ever said: “I wish I could trade places with you.”
Scanga had stumbled on a secret — perhaps the secret — of public speaking.
“What happens as we get all worked up about a talk we have to give, is that the fear itself becomes your focus,” he says. “But when you focus on the purpose, you forget the fear.”
April 30th, 2016, Newcastle Community Town Hall Public Square, 7:45 AM.
“Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the staircase.” — Martin Luther King
With those first words of his first speech, Franco Scanga’s marathon was launched. He felt good. People clapped their mittens together at the end. Scanga took a couple of questions, doffed his mike and hopped in the rental car, which was filled with gear, and cookies his mom had baked for his audiences, and his own food supply — largely celery, strawberries and lots of lots of water.
The next location, Trinity United Church in Bowmanville, was close by. The venues had to be tightly bunched in order for him to make his deadline. Coming up on the list: an art gallery, a library, a sports complex, another park, a historical building.
Each time he stepped on stage Scanga felt a little electric jolt of nerves, then quickly got on top of it. He brought cue cards up there, but, worried that he’d be disqualified for “reading” his speech if he even looked down, he largely ignored them.
Speaking in a church he’d grown up in, he found himself choking up. Thereafter he calmed himself with self-talk. “I’m going into a room now. I’m looking for who I’m going to see there, and I’m going to offer this to them.”
He stared right into the maw of this thing. He tried, corny as it sounds, to be in the moment. He looked to connect.
At stop 14, the Chartwell Wynfield Retirement Centre, he called an audible when he discovered it wasn’t the crowd he’d expected. He thought his meditation-group friends would be there. Instead, the facility’s aging residents filled the seats. Scanga’s film references weren’t going to fly. Out they went.
As afternoon shaded into evening, all that training appeared to be paying off. Scanga wasn’t flagging at all. “If anything I had more energy,” he says.
He barely registered that he had broken the record after stop 22. It was the next one that really mattered. He took to the stage at the Italian Club, beloved of his bricklayer father who “literally helped build the place.”
For this speech, Scanga went five minutes longer than any of the others. He ditched the template. He just talked about his Dad. He tried to control his emotions as his eyes swept over the crowd and fastened on the man who was sitting out there, trying to hold himself together.
Franco Scanga didn’t raise Cdn $15,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society, as he’d hoped.
He raised Cdn$17,800.
These days, when he tells his story to groups of kids and young people, he’s often asked if the experience changed him. Did he conquer his fear?
Well, he admits, he still gets that “jolt” every time he goes onstage. But he no longer interprets the jolt as fear. He interprets it as excitement. “I think that day actually changed my brain,” he says. “I can retain information more easily now. I’m able to focus like a laser.”
And there’s this: All that effort to be present, right here for these people right now, proved an accidental mindfulness hack. He’s more patient now, more optimistic. More like the Franco of old, the Franco they know, his friends say.
And, oh yes: His Dad is doing great.
“Thank you,” he says, “for asking.”