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Angst at the Podium (and every second leading up to it)

posted Dec 2, 2013, 6:04 PM by Janie Watts

Fear of speaking must run in families, or that’s what I’ve always assumed.  Sadly, my great-great- grandfather collapsed and died while giving a speech when he was running for office in 1890.

Inherited or not, the fear of speaking seems to affect many, especially writers who often toil away in isolation for years before sharing their work. This fear of public speaking, or speaking at all, is termed “glossophobia.”  If your heart starts thudding rapidly if you just think about speaking, you’ve got it.  Or you may feel nauseated or panicked.  If you’re like me, you get all three symptoms.

When I was first invited to speak about my writing at a small public library event, my first impulse was to say, “No.”  When I was offered the opportunity to sell my books, and to collect an honorarium, my “No” quickly turned to “Yes.”  I wanted to ask the library director if I could wear a brown paper bag over my head—it would be so much easier for all of us, I reasoned.  As a writer, I liked to be behind the scenes—or creating the scenes—not in them!  But since I couldn’t remember seeing a single author lurking beneath paper headdress, I decided I’d have to go as is. At least my eye glasses (which I have always hated) would provide some sort of shield.    

For weeks I prepared. I wrote, re-wrote, and rehearsed and timed my remarks. I even wrote out questions I thought the audience might ask me, and answers.   I made sure to say a few funny things in the beginning because I knew if I could get folks laughing, and I could see their smiles, we might all be more comfortable. And besides, if they liked me, when my heart failed, maybe one of them would kindly give me CPR.

On the day of the speech, I woke up with a dry mouth, a pounding heart, certain I would die as my great-great-grandfather had.  I arrived early at the library, and went to the empty room.  I sat down in a chair, hoping to make the territory familiar.  I reasoned that if I observed people coming into the room, smiled at them, we wouldn’t be complete strangers.  And I wouldn’t be scared.

Apparently my heart didn’t agree.  Arriving at the podium, I looked out at two dozen unsmiling faces.  Were they uncomfortable with the booming sound of my heart thudding like a pair of Congo drums that was somehow being picked up by the microphone? I had no choice now but to talk over the sound of my heart.  I glanced at my big notes (always typed and 18 pt. typeface) and began speaking.  I shared my first joke.  They laughed and immediately I felt a connection with them. They wanted to have fun.  I wanted to have fun. A warm feeling overtook the heart thumping, and I was on my way. 

By the end, we seemed to be getting along.  Like Sally Field at the Oscar awards, I wanted to shout, “You like me!”  Instead I took questions and heard their thoughts. And after it was all over, I realized I had enjoyed myself, and survived my first speech without anyone having to call 911.  Whew!

Now, instead of thinking of how scared I am going to be, I think about connecting with my audience. I find myself looking forward to sharing my story, and to hearing theirs. If I deliver my speech, “the main course,” I’ll be rewarded with the “dessert” (Q. and A.).

As 2013 draws to a close, and tallying up the numbers, I realize I have survived 30 book talks or readings, and radio or TV interviews.  For those of you who might have a speaking gig in the near future, I offer a few tips in hopes this may help you too.

1.       Get there early and sit quietly before time to talk.  Observe your audience as they come in.  

2.       Ask for a podium so you’ll have something to hold onto, and a place to lay down your notes.

3.       Focus not on your fear but on connecting with your audience.

4.       While most audiences ask insightful questions in the Q. and A., be prepared for the occasional contrarian.  Listen and don’t let it throw you. Remain calm. Remember it’s better to have someone feel passionate about your work than to have him be bored. 

5.       If tips 1-4 don’t help, remember you can always try the paper- bag- over- your- head approach.   Who knows? You might start a new trend.  We glossophobians will be your biggest fans.