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Dealing with public speaking terror

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been for the last few months, since Christmas really, I’ve been hiding out in my house. You see, when Prove It, Josh was nominated for the Silver Birch Express award as part of the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading program, I was faced with having to speak in public to thousands of children and adults. And I was afraid. In fact, I was terrified.

You might remember that before the book launch for Prove It, Josh, I joined Toastmasters. I’d like to be able to tell you that I loved every minute of Toastmasters, but the exact opposite is true. I loathed it. That’s not because I didn’t find it valuable, just that having to speak in front of the group, even once I got to know people, freaked me out every week, to the point where it was all I could think about. So after the launch I happily quit.

But you know what people say, something along the lines of, if you don’t learn your lesson the first time, you’re doomed to face that very situation again. And as an author, that’s exactly what happens when it comes to public speaking. Sooner or later you have to face this fear.

So that’s what I’ve just spent the last six months doing, and not doing well.

As a Silver Birch Express nominee, I needed to come up with three different speeches – a 45-60 minute school presentation, a 30 minute presentation with another author, and a 90 second speech to deliver at a microphone in front of thousands. I focused most of my energy on the longest one – the school presentation.

I decided Powerpoint slides would help ground me, and give the kids something to look at other than me. I talked to other authors about what they included and then I made several mindmaps and an outline to narrow down my content. Months went by and I didn’t make a lot of progress because I knew I still had plenty of time and Fear and Resistance were whispering in my ear that I was going to be a complete failure and that everyone would laugh at me.

That was when I realized that the best way to start my presentation would be with something funny, so that the kids would laugh at me. My idea was to get that out of the way, so that my biggest fear would come true, but on my own terms. And the best way I knew to get a laugh with a North American audience was to joke about my Kiwi accent, so I used the Steak/Stick story as a way to introduce the fact that I have an accent and to give the kids permission to ask me questions if they couldn’t understand me.

Once I had the beginning nailed down, I continued on, adding anecdotes and discussing how I became a writer. I told all my writing friends what I was doing, and they all offered advice, support and encouragement. But by the time April rolled around, I was a bundle of nerves and I woke up every night at 3am worrying that I was going to fall flat on my face. It got so bad I lost my appetite and coffee was giving me the shakes.

With three weeks to go, I finally finished my presentation. But then my fear solidified into a not unfounded concern that I wouldn’t be able to remember all this content, even with the slides to prompt me. One thing I learned in Toastmasters is that when I stand up in front of a group, my mind goes completely blank. How on earth was I going to do this?

At two weeks to go, inspiration hit me in the middle of the night. I could print out my notes and put them in clear plastic sleeves in a binder, and that way if my mind went blank, I had it all right there in front of me. Around this time too, I was chatting with another author about the Float House, where you can soak in a tank of Epsom salts for relaxation. Rather than do that, I started having a daily bath in lavender scented Epsom salts–and almost right away I was sleeping through the night again. Lavender essential oil is well known for providing relief from anxiety and Epsom salts contain magnesium, which can help you sleep. Also, the weather improved, so I made sure I sat outside in the sun each day, and I took some Vitamin B Complex on the off chance that I was depleted. And I STOPPED DRINKING COFFEE (yeah, I was that desperate!)

For the last two weeks I practised and practised my presentation, by myself in Ginger (parked at the beach) and in front of my neighbour and friends. With all that practice I realized that I would be okay. I even felt somewhat calm at times.

You might think at this point I had it all under control, and that I’d defeated my public speaking terrors, but you’d be wrong. I still broke out in a sweat, my hands shook, my mouth was dry, and I stumbled over my words. If you looked closely, you might have glimpsed the terror on my face. But, as Toastmasters had shown me before the book launch, I could do it. I could speak at a volume where people could hear me, and I didn’t embarrass myself by falling off the stage or fainting. I COULD do it. I DID do it.

Here’s proof that I did it, although my friend Kathy stopped filming before I started speaking so she could take photos.

(Thanks for this Kathy!)

And the kind folks at the London Public Library snapped this picture of me speaking at the London Festival of Trees ceremony.

London Forest of Reading

I’ve since read a book called Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool by Taylor Clark. The main point I gathered from this book, is that you simply cannot control how your brain reacts to a fearful situation–your brain says fight or flight, or in my case, freeze. All you can do is put yourself in the situation over and over until your brain learns that there’s no real danger. When it comes to public speaking, just prepare your speech and practise it as often as you can. And accept that you will be afraid, but do it anyway.

Smile – it’s your first speech!

Gollum at the Wellington airport
–Gollum at the Wellington airport

So we all have fears, right? I’m afraid of spiders, I’m not good with heights, and I’m terrified of drowning. But the most common fear of all, and definitely one of my biggest fears, is the fear of public speaking.

That’s why it’s so great to be a writer. I can write, and ponder, and rewrite until I’m happy that the words are saying what I intend them to say, and I can do it alone, where no one can see me. That’s all well and good, except that when you have a book published, there’s an expectation that you’ll have a book launch, read from your book, do interviews—lots of speaking in public about your book. And this small fact I’d managed to avoid facing until a month ago, when the Sono Nis Press catalogue came out. It was then it suddenly occurred to me. Oh oh—I really am going to have to do something about this fear of public speaking.

So, I joined Toastmasters. I’ve been going to meetings once a week for a month now, and so far I’ve managed to pretty much avoid speaking. But this weekend, when next week’s preliminary agenda arrived in my email, I noticed to my ABSOLUTE HORROR, that I’m down to do a 1.5 minute speech. It’s a smile story, so the idea is to come up with a very short story that will make people smile. I’m just hoping I don’t pass out or puke. Please, keep your fingers crossed for me!

Here’s my smile story

My name is Jenny, and as some of you may know, I’m from New Zealand, land of the long white cloud—although, most of you probably know it as the land of hobbits and Middle Earth. In New Zealand, we have two official languages—Maori, the language spoken by our native people, and the Queen’s English.

Now I admit I have a bit of an accent, but still, I’m speaking English, right?

Or am I?

I went to the supermarket the other day to buy things for dinner. I got some salad vegetables and fruit, and then I went to the meat section to pick up a couple of top sirloin medallions. But the shelf was empty.

My husband, Patrick, says, “Oh well, let’s get something else.”

But I want those medallions—I’ve been thinking about them all day, and nothing else will do. “Don’t worry, I’ll ask the butcher,” I say. So I march over to the butcher’s counter and one of the guys comes to help me.

“What can I get you?” he asks.

Well, at that precise moment I have a brain fart, like you do, and I can’t remember what the steak is called. Never mind, I think to myself, I’ll just describe it, and he will know what I mean.

“I want some steak—you know the round ones with the string around them?”

The butcher looks at me blankly, so I try to clarify.

“I looked on the shelf, and there were none there. You know, that steak with the string around them.” Because everyone knows that when someone doesn’t understand you, the best thing to do is just repeat yourself.

Another blank look, and then he says, “Stick?? Is that a kind of fish?”

{Edited to add: You might also be interested in my latest speaking nightmare.}