It’s a terror nearly as elemental as the fear of dying. It can bring strong men to their knees and turn the smartest of women into incoherent babblers. Maybe you already know where I’m headed. It’s public speaking and there’s nothing else quite like its scary prospect. Many people would rather go through a spinal tap than have to address an audience. I know the feeling. It’s been part of my job throughout my adult life and not once have I ever been completely relaxed.
Do it often enough and it does get a little easier. When I was starting out in my career, I would begin to get anxious weeks before a speaking engagement. Only in the last several years has my period of anxiety been reduced to a couple of days ahead of time, followed by a night of sleeplessness afterwards. It’s easy to get so wound up it’s impossible to find tranquility.
In my own small way, I have come to understand why professional entertainers need to find equilibrium by artificial means. The highs and lows are too severe. I have managed to get my most extreme anxiety down to about one hour before I am called to the podium. I prefer to be outside the room until the very last moment. But often that is not possible. The hosts of whatever event one has been invited to often expect their guest to mix with the delegates. Believe me, the last thing one wants to do is insult someone who will be sitting in the audience in a heartbeat.
This opens the door to all kinds of problems. Someone might ask a question that I can’t answer, which is hardly a confidence builder. Or they might give expression to that most dreaded of all queries, “So Alex, what are you going to tell us today?” My mind usually goes blank when so confronted. If some intelligence does creep back in, then there’s the matter of responding in a sentence or two. And if I do pull it off, whatever reason is there for anyone to linger on in the room? Never mind that I hate to have to say the same thing over again when I’m on stage.
There are some people who seem to be naturally outgoing and love to stand in front of an audience. I’m more reticent, but I’ve learned to do it anyway. One of my coping mechanisms is to make sure I’ve gone over my material an adequate number of times. I have found three to be the right number of trial presentations. At that level, the words will come out under almost any circumstances, from panic attack right up to and including nuclear bombardment. Actually, the latter has never really been tested, but I suspect it would hold true regardless.
Any more times than three and I get bored out of my skin and one has to at least seem interested in one’s own material. Fewer than three rehearsals, however, can leave me vulnerable to searching around for the best way to express an idea or make a point. About ten years into my career, I decided on one occasion to deliver a presentation with no preparation at all. I figured that if I could wing it and not think about things beforehand, the anxiety would be eliminated.
It worked up to a point. I wasn’t terribly nervous during the drive to the site. But then I walked into the room and saw 100-plus people in their business suits. My attitude took an abrupt 180 degree turn. It was a dinner presentation and wine was being served. To ease my nerves, I had a glass or two. Feeling only a little better and now in a bit of a fog, I was called to the front.
Most of the grizzled businessmen in the audience could tell I didn’t have a firm grasp on what I was saying. Early on, they started ignoring me and talking among themselves. That caused me to lean into the microphone harder and crank up the volume. Then to really get their attention, I began to make things up. I started with mild untruths that quickly blossomed into outrageous fabrications. Let’s just leave it that I still shudder when I think back to that night.
The things that go through my mind in the one hour before I go behind a podium are explosively confusing. My life flashes before my eyes. What am I doing here? Why on earth would anyone want to hear what I have to say? Is there anyone in this room who knows less than I do? What if I have to pee? Where are the exits? I’m pretty sure this is the worst way ever to make a living.
My father had a deep and rich manly voice. He craved listeners and attention. My voice doesn’t match his for media-quality timbre. But I’ve come to understand there are advantages in not sounding or appearing just like everyone else. Thank goodness for microphones that can amplify tones even if a figurative marshmallow somehow becomes lodged in one’s larynx.
Often I’ve had to sit at a raised dais with other presenters at the front of a conference room. That’s where one can get more insight into the speaking experience. I’ve known knowledgeable men and women who’ve thrown up with regularity just before every presentation. I’ve had to endure the cash and key janglers who make so much noise in their pockets you can’t hear what they’re saying. Then there are the guys who bold-facedly say that their slides tell it all. “Just read what I have to say.” They stand aside and leave the audience in stunned bewilderment.
The worst situation occurred once when I sat beside some poor unfortunate soul who I’m sure wished he could have been anywhere else but headed for what he assumed would be public humiliation. Sitting next to me, I could not help but notice that he was developing the flop sweats that stand-up comedians sometimes talk about. Then I heard some barely audible groans.
What to do? If I ask if he’s alright, this will bring attention to his plight and probably make the situation worse. If I don’t say anything, he might lose all control and leap from the room or go into cardiac arrest. Then I would bear considerable responsibility for this sorry pass. Somehow we got to the appointed time, the oblivious chairperson introduced my new “buddy” and he did miraculously manage to get through his material without too many people noticing his distress.
I once read somewhere that when one passes the age of 50, the brain cells that control anxiety start to die off. This is supposed to be a self-defence mechanism against aging and the “dying of the light”. Whether or not it’s really true, I choose to believe such is the case. It seems to have helped me to deal with anxiety a little better as I’ve become older. It certainly has played a role in my not being as concerned when it comes to public speaking.
Here’s another factor. Most of the people I used to care so much about impressing or not letting down have left my industry, retired or are dead. That puts things in perspective. There are gruesome advantages to having such an advanced number of years under my suspenders.
Probably my worst-ever (and therefore also my funniest) experience on the public-speaking circuit is recorded in Ode to an Audience. This story is laid out, funeral-style, in three bite-sized chunks, with the descent into befuddlement-hell growing ever steeper.