Last week at about this time I was sitting in a grand ballroom of a hotel waiting to give a presentation. And to many people this would not be a big deal as some people do this sort of thing all the time. But for little "˜ol Merely Me this was a huge event. Matter of fact, this was my first official public presentation at a conference. Shhh Don’t tell anybody.
The last time I spoke in “public” was for a poetry class when I was an undergraduate in college. I had to give an informal talk about the poet, Sylvia Plath. I am sure Sylvia was rolling around in her grave when I failed to get through my speech. I stopped about a third of the way through because I froze up. And this was for a small class while sitting in a circle of chairs. I still remember the looks my classmates gave to me, sort of a mixture of shock and pity. My face was red with shame as the teacher gently nudged the next person to talk. Of course my classmate seemed delivered their presentation with smiling grace and ease, a direct contrast to my lock jaw performance.
I still remember that time so many years later. Why is it that these times when we “mess up” stick to our psyche like chewing gum caught in your hair? The emotional residue of such memories is so hard to get rid of!
The thought of public speaking has always been frightening to me yet I know I am not alone in my fear. There are many lists and surveys which show that up to 75% of the population is afraid of public speaking. The Book of Lists ranks the fear of public speaking as even higher than the fear of death.
Do any of you remember this Seinfeld joke about this where he says:
“A recent survey stated that the average person’s greatest fear is having to give a speech in public. Somehow this ranked even higher than death, which was third on the list. So, you’re telling me that at a funeral, most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than have to stand up and give a eulogy.”
Might be a hard choice to make for some of us scaredy cats.
So what makes so many of us turn to jello at the thought of giving a speech? And does this same fear generalize to other situations? Speaking only for myself, I have always been a chronic worrier. If someone is late for example, I imagine the bus that hit them. I can relate to this quote by Mark Twain: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Before I gave my talk the list of potential disasters scrolled through my mind such as burping, fainting, falling off the stage, or a first time ever sudden uncontrollable urge to swear. I did not voice these fears to anyone but did worry aloud about my glasses or shoes falling off. You probably already know this but none of these things actually did happen.
Then there is also the fact that I am a shy introvert. I feel like a bug under pressed glass when any direct attention is being focused upon me. If you ask any introvert with social anxiety what they most fear, they are going to tell you things like meeting new people, going to social events, and probably number one on the list would be public speaking.
I got to face all three fears in a single day!
My mind sorted through all the varied advice and stored tips I had in my limited repertoire. I thought of Marcia Brady in the episode from the Brady Bunch where she is told to think of the audience in their underwear as she is giving a speech. Um…no…absolutely not. It was unfortunate that I didn’t get to read the suggestion in time of member Sherry, who told me to imagine the audience as a garden with the corn to the left, tomatoes in the middle and the cabbages to the right. Now that was just the sort of imagery which could have worked for me.
Thank goodness I had support with me. Let’s just say that two angels from Health Central were there to make sure I ended up having a wonderful experience. (Thank you…you know who you are!)
I had gone to my hotel room to freshen up before my time on stage and I tried to envision the time when I would return to the same room feeling both relieved but joyous that I had met this personal challenge. I sat on the edge of the bed, stared into the mirror, and told myself that this was something I wanted to do, not for any prestige or for any audience, but for me. A calm confidence came over me. I walked out, closed the door behind me, and I knew then that this would be a life changing experience.
I was right.
My presentation focused upon my life experiences as a mother, a patient, and my work as a writer and community leader for Health Central. I thought about each and every one of you when I said this to the people in that audience:
I can tell you with complete honesty that I love my job because…
I get to see amazing things happen when people come to Health Central to gain support and end up helping someone else. I have watched people transform from feeling isolated and hopeless to feeling supported and empowered. The reason I love my work is because I get to witness this type of transformation each and every day.
What I need to add is that I too am transformed. Hey, it’s a big deal for me to get to go to the supermarket by myself without kids. And then here I was travelling to a different city and giving a speech. My life has changed because of the support I receive here from all of you. I feel like I can do things I never thought possible before. For those seemingly never ending ten minutes I did something far outside of my comfort zone. And just think if a socially anxious phobic introvert like me can get on a stage and speak before a public audience, just imagine what you can do.
Thank you for making me believe in the power of possibility. I hope I can do the same for all of you.