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Speaking of

When I was but an intern at DGLM, one of the things that most appealed to me about the agent job was the odd mix of the solitary and the social. For me, it satisfied two very different sides of my personality: the me who wants nothing more than to be left alone with a good book, and the me who wants to tell everyone how to think, act, dress, eat, and now, read! A combination of being left alone but also telling people what I think, and what they should think, is just right for me.

What I didn’t know, however, was just how often I’d be hitting the road to go speak in front of groups of people, both large and small. Telling people one-on-one what I think is one thing, getting up in front of a room of 50 or 100 or 1,000, well, that’s another story. I have awful, terrible, painful stage fright. Honestly, back in the beginning, I had a difficult time even speaking in front of 10 people. It brought me right back to middle and high school, giving reports in front of the class. I was absolutely petrified. I tried to hold out as long as possible, but conference invitations picked up, and I had to do it. I actually don’t even think about this all that often, but I read this piece on Life Hacker yesterday and it got me thinking. The advice is really great, and it mirrors my own experiences.

The first few times I spoke were a disaster. I am not exaggerating. One time, I just had to do a short introduction in front of a large room. Name, agency, what you rep–things I could have recited in my sleep, even then. But I had to hold a microphone. I had never done this, and for some reason, it terrified me more. My heart was racing, I was sweating, and I was shaking. I started to speak, lost my way, and wound up apologizing and telling everyone that I was terrified of public speaking. The crowd, mostly women over the age of 50, went straight into mother mode and started audibly comforting me. It was kind–and humiliating. There were other less dramatic but equally painful experiences.

So, I tried to avoid it. I would go to conferences where I only had to do critiques or one-on-ones. But eventually, there was no getting around it. I probably should have sought professional help, but that’s not really my thing. Instead, I started to pay attention to what bothered me most about it, and how I might be able to mitigate the issues. I noticed, early on, that being on stage with other people made me about so much more relaxed, so I first sought out panels. And I did a lot of them. It began to feel more natural, and even though they’re often unscripted, I developed an introduction and a few somewhat-scripted answers that helped me feel more confident.

Next, it was time to tackle talking on my own. Honestly, it’s still tough for me. I get nervous and clammy. But I am prepared. I make sure to practice my material enough (but not too much!) beforehand, so I feel assured in what I have to say. I have clear outlines that make it difficult for me to get lost. And, I remind myself, people actually want to hear what I have to say. I still feel strange up there, with all those people looking at me. It still takes a few minutes for my heart to stop pounding. I often finish speaking and realize that the time has flown by, and I don’t have much memory of it–I think I get a pretty big adrenaline rush as my fight or flight response kicks in. But whereas before I rarely heard from anyone after I spoke, now people come up to thank me for my thoughts, and more shockingly, compliment my delivery. I am not, by any means, a fantastic public speaker, but I’ve overcome the crippling fear I had, and I’m able to get the job done.

I know authors also have issues speaking, and my author Nova Ren Suma did a great, very helpful post about it recently. And my author Sara Solovitch is actually writing a book called PLEASE SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, an investigative piece about stage fright and performance anxiety, told through the lens of her own battle to play piano in front of people. What about you all? I imagine the performers amongst you don’t mind, but what about all you introverted bookish people? How do you deal with stage fright?

7 Responses to Speaking of

  1. Lynn says:

    Michael, so you’re my long lost twin! I thought I was the only one who could describe myself as “the me who wants nothing more than to be left alone…and the me who wants to tell everyone how to think….”

    As a musician, I use to audition in front of judges for a chair with an orchestra. That was difficult for reason other than stage fright. For instance, I would have to sightread, play music I had never seen before, and I was competing against other musicians for those precious few spots. Performing in front of an audience was never a problem.

    Speaking in front of people, however, was a totally different beast. The first time I read one of my poems in public, I was so nervous I truly thought I was going to faint, have a heart attack, or both. The funny thing was, my family and friends who were in the audience said that I didn’t look nervous at all. I don’t know if we were on the same planet, but my voice was quivering so badly, I thought someone was going to call 911.

    The second time I read, wine was being served so I had a nice glass of wine before going on stage and wouldn’t you know it, I had no trouble getting up in front of people. Not only did I read my poetry, I talked a little about myself before I began.

    After that, each time I got up to speak it got easier (no, not always with a glass of wine) and now I actually enjoy it. Practice, I think, is key.

  2. Siri Kirpal Kaur Khalsa says:

    A tip from a former aspiring opera singer:

    Breathe deeply and slowly. Inhale let your belly expand. Exhale and let your belly relax.

    Personally, I do better if I don’t have a script, but have a good idea what I’ll need to say.

  3. Stacey says:

    Great post, Mike. I relate, despite my acting background. I just want to know where you are speaking to 1000 people so I can stay away?!

  4. Lynn says:

    Interesting comment, Stacey. I would have thought being a child actress you wouldn’t have had that problem, but I guess public speaking is the number one fear for most people.

  5. Michael,

    I think there are two kinds of public speakers. There are the completely polished ones that almost sound like their whole presentation is packaged. They are good, and usually interesting, but you don’t feel like you are hearing anything personal.

    Then there are the ones who sound like a real person on stage. They pause. They think. They may not come off as polished, but you feel like you heard the real person speaking. When Veronica Roth spoke at BEA, she definitely had a little nervousness going on. But her story was so powerful and personal, that you didn’t care.

    That’s the way I’ve always felt listening to you. I like that you are prepared by don’t sound like you are reading off the back of a ceral box. It’s real. And people like real.

  6. Michael McDonagh says:

    I was a speech and debate competitor in high school, which landed me a full ride college scholarship, none of which seemed to have any noticeable effect on the absolute terror I experience speaking in front of people. My hands would turn dark purple before I spoke. I could draw a smiley face on one hand with the fingernail form the other and it would remain visible for almost 30 seconds (yea, I would try to occupy my mind by timing the disappearing smiley faces). I could convincingly pretend not to be nervous, but never managed not to be nervous.

    My junior year in college I was in the final round of impromptu speaking — the most terrifying of all speech events — at the national championships. I was competing against the 5 top speakers in the country in an auditorium containing a couple hundred onlookers, most of whom were national-level speakers themselves. I had developed a little trick, telling myself “If this was a drug, you’d like it.” The thing about adrenaline is it dissipates if you start really enjoying the rush.

    Unfortunately, the a little voice inside my head had a reply. As I walked up onto the stage it said, “Yea, but you wouldn’t have taken it now.”

    I took 5th.

    P.S. In my opinion, a great speaker is not a speaker who doesn’t get nervous. It is a speaker who can convincingly pretend s/he isn’t nervous.

    P.P.S. There is a happy ending — I won a national championship the following year. My hands were still bluer than shit, though.

  7. This is a great post and some really good tips. I like the last one of ‘A great speaker is not a speaker who doesn’t get nervous. It is a speaker who can convincingly pretend s/he isn’t nervous. ‘ Really agree with this comment. I have also tried to use cure fear of public speaking in the past which has really helped me to cure my fear of public speaking.

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