It’s a well-known fact that public speaking is most people’s number one fear. People fear it more than dying. In fact, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld once joked that ‘Go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.’
Too bloody right. I’ve been asked to do readings at friends’ weddings and each time it gets me into such a stress, I’d almost rather pay for their honeymoon than get up in front of the crowd and read another ‘Love is…’ poem.
While most of my work is at a laptop, I have turned down a couple of speaking invites for fear I’d mess it up.
And so last Thursday I felt the fear. Big time.
A local speakers group – the Camberley Speakers Club – had kindly agreed I could come and do a talk at one of their meetings.
The speech would need to be 5-7 minutes long and it would ideally be without notes. I got an email advising me that there would be a traffic light system timing me (green when I’ve reached my minimum time, amber-time to tell me I’d reached 6 minutes,and red to warn that i had 30 seconds to wrap-up or be disqualified), and that I would have an ‘Evaluator’ assessing me. There was also an agenda.
The words ‘evaluator’, ‘agenda’ and ‘disqualified’ were enough to spin me out, let alone flashing lights.
As the day went on, I got myself into a right state. I worried I’d get up on the stage and forget everything. Nothing would come out of my mouth at all and everybody would be staring at me.
I kept telling myself that it didn’t matter, that absolutely nothing was riding on it and that even if I messed up completely and utterly, who cares? It would be in front of 20 people who I would never see again. It wouldn’t kill me.
But it didn’t matter – I was irrationally scared. It’s because looking stupid in front of other people is one of our deepest fears. Although actually the fear of looking stupid is usually worse than than the actual looking stupid, according to studies.
Finally, my friend put me back in my box. She told me to remember that I was speaking in a Church hall and not the O2. Fair enough.
At 7pm I walked through the graveyard to the church hall. It seemed apt. I thought of Jerry Seinfeld. Behind the podium was a picture that the local Sunday School kids had done. It spelled out the word butterflies. Again, apt.
There were three speeches before mine – each brilliant, including a fabulously surreal one about a custard cream factory. It was like something from Monty Python.
Then it was me. I stood up, walked to the front and felt like my heart was pumping out of my chest.
I talked about reading Feel the Fear for the first time, when I was 24 in a job I hated. I spoke about how it felt like an adrenaline shot and afterwards I quit the crappy job. Shortly after that I got into journalism.
I carried on wittering about other books I’d read and then the green line came on. I’d been speaking for 5 minutes. It had felt like 3 seconds. Weirder still, I was enjoying it. Worryingly, I was enjoying the sound of my own voice.
Afterwards, over tea and custard creams, everyone was very kind. I was a natural! Engaging and funny! Was it really my first time? My head started to swell. I imagined the great public speaking/radio/television career head of me.
My winning streak abandoned me in the improvisation session. I was asked to give a two-minute speech about the 70 mph motorway speed limit. I had nothing to say. Nothing.
Meanwhile the others did the most imaginative, funny off the cuff speeches about the benefits of smoking (‘it keeps the people who make oxygen cannisters in business’) and why Camberley needs an Anne Summers.
At the end of the meeting three people were commended for their efforts.
The president, Cathy Richardson, read out the names. The second one was…. mine.
Me! An award-winning public speaker! I got my certificate and my prize.
Apparently it is usually chocolate but Kathy decided that post Christmas, we were better off with cereal bars. ‘Only 73 calories!’ she explained while handing me my gift. ‘Brilliant!’ I said.
Then my photograph was taken. It was pretty much the Oscars.
Over a pint, across the road in the local Indian, people told me about how scared they were when they started. Many of them came because they got promoted at work and needed to get more confident at presenting. Others had to prepare best–men or father of the bride speeches and were so nervous they joined Toastmasters to practice before the big day.
It struck me how brave they all were, to face their fears head-on, every fortnight, instead of running away. To me they all seemed so confident, witty, composed. They made it look easy.
Just goes to show, even when people around you seem to sail through things, it doesn’t mean they’re not terrified on the inside. We all are.
It also made me think of all the things I’ve turned down/avoided doing, for fear of failure… How many of those things might I have been quite good at?Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway: How to Turn Your Fear and Indecision into Confidence and Action
PS – if you live locally and would like to tackle your fear of public speaking, I really can recommend Camberley Speakers Club. They are very friendly and kind and patient. http://camberley-speakers.org.uk. They’re one Facebook too. If you’re not in the area google Toastmasters for your nearest club.