Life as a Picasso

By Mark E. Smith

I recently spoke on a senate panel on aging. The panelists were heavy-hitters, including a U.S. senator and heads of government agencies. As speakers go, they were the best-of-the-best, both in presentation and knowledge. Then, there was me.

As a speaker, I prefer keynotes, not because I wish to be the star attraction, but because there’s a different dynamic on panels, especially when the other panelists are beyond great. It’s like sitting back stage as a musician and the band before you is phenomenal, and you’re thinking, Man, I can’t live up to what Iggy Pop just did!

What made the recent panel even more challenging was that I went last, so there I sat trembling in my boots – not emotionally, but literally, as I have uncontrollable body movements due to cerebral palsy – as I watched eloquent, brilliant speakers along our table command the room. So, how’d I move through it?

The same way that I always do. Public speaking can be tricky. Yet, if you know your subject, know your audience, and you’re skilled with rhetorical devices, public speaking is a bit of an illusion – it looks tougher than it is. For me, however, there’s a wild card added to the mix: cerebral palsy. My brain sends involuntary signals to my muscles and they do whatever they want, whenever they want. My central nervous system doesn’t care if I’m in bed watching TV or speaking in front of 250 statesmen. If it tells my legs to kick, they simply kick – formally known as a “spasm.” Speaking as a craft is easy for me; doing it with the physical unpredictability of cerebral palsy can be the harrowing part.

Given my situation, I view speaking in front of audiences like driving a race car. Driving a car at 150 mph around a race track takes skill, but even more so when the unexpected occurs. Race car drivers win races not based on simply going around a track, but in addressing peril when encountered. Did you see him keep his car from spinning off of the track!

When I’m publicly speaking, it’s the same phenomenon. I have my emotional and mental composure, but I never know what my body will throw my way. The ability to address spasms and uncontrolled body movements without missing a beat while speaking is my real craft. The way I do it is I let go of the mental and emotional constraints others often feel in such situations. When I sat on the senate panel, there was no way I could be as physically composed as the other speakers, so I threw that standard out the window and focused on being the only person I could be: me. I have cerebral palsy and a microphone – hold on to your seats, folks! In these ways, cerebral palsy becomes an asset of originality.

It doesn’t matter if we’re public speaking or living our everyday lives, the minute we let go of social pressures or preconceived notions of who we should be and just be ourselves, as-is, there’s no freer realm to be in. I understand that this is difficult for many. We live in a culture that presents ideals on how we should be. Yet, for many of us, it’s impossible for us to meet those ideals – there’s no product to resolve cerebral palsy – and in the larger scope, nor should anyone feel he or she has to live to such scripted ideals.

See, I view the world as the most spectacular art gallery. Each of our beauty isn’t blended on a single cultural canvas, in a single form, but seen within the borders of our unique frames. Photoshopped images are great; an original Picasso is amazing.


Our Truest Voice


By Mark E. Smith

I recently watched a Ted Talk by a public speaking coach who gave the secrets to being a great speaker. She spoke of relaxed posture. She spoke of soft breathing. She spoke of using your diaphragm. She spoke of controlled speech patterns. And, she spoke of overall body composure. Really, based on all she covered, I should never roll on a stage or speak in front of a group ever again because my cerebral palsy prevents every technique she noted. According to her, I’m the antithesis of a speaker, her worst nightmare.

Yet, over the past 25 years, I’ve spoken to more groups than I can count; I’ve made a remarkable number of TV appearances; and, I speak formally within my company in many capacities every day – all with tremendous efficacy. So, how do I – as one with severe cerebral palsy – defy the rules of the experts and achieve success in my career with so much speaking?

The answer is, I am just me and I always speak from the heart. I don’t need to be a polished robot, nor do I need to try to be someone I can never be. When you hear me speak – sometimes labored, sometimes slurred, sometimes spastic – you’re getting the real me. What greater gift can we give others than the real us, perfectly imperfect, speaking from the heart?

Among the reason why I address groups within our company is because I’m so passionate about what we do and I’m so inspired by the profound difference each employee makes in the lives of our customers. And, so one of my greatest privileges is speaking to groups of our employees, both weekly with new hires, and monthly at our birthday lunch, where we celebrate employees’ birthdays.

It’s my pleasure to share with you one of my talks with our employees. What I want you to note is that I’m clearly not what that speech coach envisioned. Rather, I’m real and imperfect – the two traits that we should all embrace to make a true impact in the lives of others. There’s no one more captivating than who we truly are.

Crank up the volume and enjoy this 12-minute talk: