Conquering Fears: Public Speaking

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When speaking to a crowd is too much

When speaking to a crowd is too much

I have a great story to tell about the legend of a family fortune I discovered when conducting research on the Edwards line of my family.  I know that one of the best ways to get it out there is to share it with a live audience.  As a writer, public speaking doesn’t come naturally to me.  The last time I spoke in front of a group was over twenty years ago when I was asked to present my thesis at an anthropology conference in Chicago. Even back then all I had to do was read the paper out loud, and I still wanted to run and hide.  Granted, it was nerve-racking, but I was addressing an academic group.  I could hide behind my true inner nerd.  Fortunately, they expected me to be more educational than entertaining and  the paper was well-received.

For someone who tends to lean towards the sensitive, introverted, introspective end of the social spectrum, public speaking can be even more intimidating than it is for those who are a little more socially inclined.  I’m happiest when I’m alone or with close friends and family, when I’m surrounded by the beauty of nature, natural sounds or relaxing music, and a bright, sunny day.  I’m a simple girl.  I don’t require much.

However, there comes a time when we are confronted with ourselves and have to step outside of our own comfort zone. For me, Sunday, April 23rd, 2017, was one of those times.  I’d been working on a personal project for a few years, conducting research, and writing articles and a screenplay inspired by the original discovery I’d made.  Knowing that the best way to generate awareness about my story is to tell it out loud, I had to make a public presentation.

I contacted an organization that I thought might be interested and pitched my story, sending them a related article that I’d written.  I was both pleasantly surprised and horrified when they sent a reply asking me to present my story to their members.  I was confident in my writing, but did I really have the chops to share a spoken narrative in front of a live studio audience?  I was determined to try.

I went through all of the information I’d collected– all the news articles, the books I’d found, the material I’d already written, and condensed the most powerful elements into a series of PowerPoint slides that I hoped would be both enlightening and amusing.  I have a strange sense of humor so couldn’t help but add ridiculous pictures and one-liners for my own entertainment, if nothing else.

Once I had a rough draft of my presentation, I began to practice on some guinea pigs– my friends and family.  I was dismayed to learn that the close level of intimacy I shared with my good friends and loved ones wasn’t enough to prevent me from stumbling over my words and reading them too quickly.  I just wanted to get it all over with.  I wished it was already April 24th– the day after my presentation.

I soldiered on.  I had made a commitment and intended to honor my word.  I listened to and evaluated the feedback given to me by my close comrades.  Yes, I should refrain from reading it like a book and use bullet points instead.  This would make my communication with the audience more interactive and authentic.  The mental vice of fear squeezed a little more tightly as I printed my slides and wrote the highlights on them.  Yes, there should be a chart so my audience could follow along as I discussed the different individuals in my story. How else could they keep up with who did what and who was related to whom?  I felt a small spark of joy as I figured out how to design the chart and where it fit in with the other slides.

While I practiced and polished, I continued to suffer little pings and pangs of distress as my ego barraged me with unrelenting questions of torture.  What if you can’t stop hemming and hawing?  What if your mouth goes dry and your tongue feels like concrete?  What if the audience laughs at you?  What if you faint, or tremble, or have a nervous breakdown? I was filled with dread but continued to practice, chipping away at the rough edges of my delivery until my voice projected, I was articulating my words at a normal speaking rate, and appeared to sound natural and conversational (for me, anyway).

Finally, it was the eve of the presentation.  I was as ready as I could possibly be.  I had practiced until I knew my material up and down, inside and out.  I realized that ultimately, the outcome of my presentation didn’t matter.  I could fall down and knock myself out on the stage and it wouldn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things.  There are far more tragic things going on in the world. What really mattered was that I was doing it in spite of my fear!  I made a personal vow that I would see this experience as practice.  I wouldn’t take it seriously, but focus on the fact that my story was fun!  It was interesting!  I loved it and it was worth sharing!  I decided that if I could refrain from taking it too seriously while maintaining a spirit of enjoyment, everything would be alright in the end– no matter what.

And you know what?  It was.  As a matter of fact, it was a smashing success.  I even received an invitation from a member of the audience to make the same presentation at a conference he leads in Washington D.C.

Public speaking may still intimidate me from time to time, but I intend to keep trying. I’m grateful to the Universe (and that particular organization) for the opportunity to push myself further. I’m also thankful that I accepted the challenge, rose to meet it, and exceeded my own expectations.  That’s what happens when we take the pressure off ourselves to be perfect and just allow the moment to be whatever it is.

I can live with that.

(PS… here’s a comment from the organizer who invited me to present my story :  “Brijit, I didn’t get a chance to e-mail you last night as I had another meeting to moderate and then it was bedtime.  After you left everyone was still talking about you- how fascinating the story is and how much they enjoyed the presentation.  That does not happen often!  Great job for your first time out! You must come back and update us if you get more out of this story!” –Barb Randall, President, British Isles Family History Society – USA )

Image credit:  The Return of Dracula, 1958