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?