There are few things in life that make me more nervous than public speaking. However, once the speech has started it becomes one of my favorite things to do. And when the speech has ended, there is an adrenaline rush that has to be comparable to jumping out of an airplane or being one of those fighter pilots at the Air and Water Show.
But in order to get to the fun part, I know I have to wrestle with the nerves. The twisting of the stomach. The "I can only eat a couple of Club crackers" level of nervousness. In the end, it's worth it, but man the waiting part sucks. And no matter how many times I do it, the nerves seem to always return for the next one.
The good news is, if public speaking makes you nervous, you, me, we're not alone. It is still voted the #1 fear. As Jerry Seinfeld puts it, "At a funeral, people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy."
I don't understand how the brain and body work in these situations. I will have an accelerated heartbeat, the kind where I feel like my heart is located right behind my Adam's apple. The nerves are on full blast all the way up until I say the first word and then the whole body shifts. I reach this peaceful zone. I compare it to that moment when an airplane is taking off, the pre-speech nerves are the acceleration down the runway and then, like magic, lift off, you're floating, no turning back.
What I worry about is what if that pre-speech nervous guy doesn't go away when the lights come up. There is a curtain that divides the two, or maybe it's a dam that keeps the nerves out, either way, the source of my fear is what if backstage Chris ends up on stage.
And in two examples it absolutely did. I was a student council guy since third grade so a lot of times I would be addressing the school in an assembly. I remember in seventh grade I had to introduce a guest speaker, they handed me a notecard to read off and while the speech went decent enough, my hand was shaking like this scene in Blazing Saddles.
Other time was junior year of high school over the announcements. Again, reading a paper I was handed, I lost my spot and that pre-speech nervousness seeped in, I continued talking but with that feeling of an elephant sitting on my chest.
One example from eight years ago, the other 12 years ago, but they still haunt me during the preparation stage for a speech. Why? Because the Fear monster is looking for evidence, any tiny scrap of evidence to prove its point. The Fear thought is, "What if this doesn't go well?" And the truth is, I have no idea if the next speech will go well. I can try to defeat the fear with examples of times in the past when the speech did go well, but Fear finds the outlier and makes it feel like the norm.
Daniel Gilbert talks about this in his book Stumbling on Happiness. The memories that stand out, be it two weeks ago or two decades ago, are moments that went against our normal, everyday experiences. It's why the, "Where were you on 9/11" brings such vivid answers but, "Do you remember what you had for lunch three weeks ago" doesn't.
So, in public speaking, I remember the ones that went really well or the two above that went very poorly. The rest kind of blend together.
How to fight this?
Enter Porky Pig. Similar to the lead in King's Speech, Porky has a severe stutter but still pursues public speaking. For Prince Albert/King George VI, he was forced to, he had to address the country. For Porky, he just likes to do it. Most famously the closing spot in the Looney Tunes when he stutters through, "Th-th-th-that's all folks!"
I love this about Porky, he keeps trying regardless of his stutter or what happened in the speech before. When I look back at those seventh grade and junior year bad speech memories, I'm glad I didn't throw in the towel forever. As Mark Twain wrote, "We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again, and that is well, but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore."
One bad speech is just one bad speech. Doesn't mean the next one will turn out poorly. Following in Porky's hoof steps, by getting up again and again, 1) we get better at it 2) the more good examples we can bring to the table to combat Fear, the more the bad experiences do feel like the exceptions.
Couple conventional things to try
Shawn Achor in The Happiness Advantage recommends taking the last five minutes to pull up photos of your family or give them a call. There's nothing preparation wise you are going to gain in the last five minutes going over your notes, but focusing on your family, faith, friends, that helps put you in a good place mentally.
The reason I think that helps so much is because what is the actual fear? That the speech goes poorly? What's so bad about a speech going poorly? When I dig deeper I find a series of "If/Thens". Fear likes to work in mathematical proofs. If the speech goes poorly, then I will look foolish. And if I look foolish then... people will see weakness. People won't see me in my best light. So the fear of public speaking, at its core, is really fear of what people think.
By finding out the source, I can chip away at the fear even without going on stage. And I'm not there yet, but the ultimate spot to reach is this acceptance of the worst case scenario, the, "I could go up there and absolutely bomb" but that doesn't impact any of my relationships and even if the whole crowd leaves thinking, "Wow, that guy was terrible" I can agree, yeah I was bad that time, but doesn't mean I will be again.
When the worst case scenario no longer seems frightening, the Fear has lost its power.
And now I'm going to pretend like that last paragraph wasn't just a restating of Saturday Night Live's Stuart Smalley's mantra of, "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And doggone it, people like me."
But to look at it another way, there's this 80-year-old guy out in California in the town my brother used to live who would go out once a week on the sidewalk and just dance. Just an old guy doing his thing. And I look at that and think, "I could do that at 80" but I wouldn't do it now. What changes? It's the same action. The difference is the 80-year-old isn't worried about making a fool of himself, who cares what other people think. But ironically, everyone that walks past thinks, "Wow, hope I can be like that when I'm his age."
And last, I think the pre-speech or pre-anything nerves are good. I've got this theory that's backed up with no science whatsoever that the nerve molecules actually convert into adrenaline molecules. Kind of a caterpillar turns into a butterfly sorta deal, therefore you can't have one without the other. Which means if you are nervous before a speech, hang in there, tough out the scary part because the good stuff is right around the corner.
Next week, actually no, tomorrow, tomorrow morning I'm doing part two to this post. It will be the rare Medium Rare Tuesday post. Anyway, it's going to be some unconventional tips for public speaking. How to use sizzles and superstitious thinking to your advantage. Stay tuned! Or just type your email in this box below and I'll deliver it to your inbox.