Monday, October 20, 2008

Lions & Tigers & Public Speaking...Oh My!

In the spooky spirit of Halloween, I thought I’d share my terrifying tale.

Okay, so thrillers like “Sixth Sense” and “The Others” creep me out. And there’s a 99% chance I’ll get super startled if you sneak up behind me and shout, “Boo!” But what really scares the bejeezus out of me is public speaking. I admit it, I get terrified. I mean, Shaggy-and-Scooby scared. It’s not even fun fright like a Ouija board séance. There’s nothing amusing about butterflies with tin wings flapping around in your tummy! (Here I am speaking at a high school a few months ago--cue eerie "door creak" or "cat screeching" sound effect.)

I’ve had this fear issue for as long as I can remember. Getting picked to read aloud in the 5th grade? Gulp. Holding the floor in weekly ideas meetings at my old magazine editing job? Redrum! But over the years, I’ve found ways to work around my condition. For example, back in 2004, a few magazine writers and I were invited to read our contributed essays (from “Transculturalism”) at Barnes & Nobles in Manhattan. I asked Claude the editor if I can be the first reader. Defense #1 in this fright fight: Go first to get it over with, otherwise the torture of the wait could be spine-tingling. Thankfully, he obliged.

And then there’s always inspiration from stage fright role model Beyonce. To combat her notorious nerves, the fierce entertainer becomes “Sasha,” the fearless alter ego. Nice strategy—but I’m more likely to take a page from author Alison Larkin’s book. Alison is both a writer (of novel “The English American”) and a performance artist (She had a one-woman show!), so her author appearances are like mini performances. Oddly enough, I loove performing. I've been in local theater musicals, and I used to be a dance troupe member. So, I’ve patterned my talks after Alison. This has worked for me. One surprising result is that people have told me how fun and funny I am in front of groups/audiences.

But my real breakthrough came a few years ago when I was asked to speak at my cousin Malou's wedding. Throughout the church ceremony, I couldn’t concentrate on anything but my nerves. When it was time to stand before the congregation and read the selected passage, that familiar anxiety attack took hold—shortness of breath, quivering voice, dry mouth. The fear was rapidly escalating until I took one look at the bride and groom. They were kneeling side by side, and seemed to me to be listening with their hearts. That’s when I had the sobering thought that instantly halted the anxiety attack: This isn’t about me. I’m just the messenger and mouthpiece. The message is what’s important.

Today I remember that moment every time I face a group. Sure, I still go into every talk feeling like an extra in “The Invasion of the Nerve Snatchers” or something. But I stay mindful of the important fact that I'm there to connect with readers.

That thought alone is strong enough to turn any "Boo!" into "Boo-yah!"


Fred E.Miller said...

Public Speaking is a fear most people have.

Check out this site for help:

Jennifer Echols said...



I'm speaking at a local high school next Monday, and I'm going through the same thing, even though I taught college for years. I have different tricks I use to get over it. But it sure would be nice to waltz into a public speaking situation and ace it daily--like my husband, the salesman!

Micol Ostow said...

I hate public speaking, too--but I bet you're better at it than you think!

Wendy Toliver said...

I'm one of those weirdos who really enjoys public speaking. I even have a degree in it (speech communication/broadcast). The weird thing is, I used to act (commercials, TV, films) and one day I had a panic attack while auditioning. I went to my doctor to find out more about what had happened, and I won't bore you all with that, but just wanted to let you who are afraid of public speaking that even people trained to do it sometimes freak out. :)