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Think of it as the opposite of paralysis by analysis. By breaking down what’s behind the nearly universal fear of public speaking, an intrepid mom blogger wants to get you talking—and wants to set you free.
By Patty Chang Anker
Illustration by Matthieu Forichon
Please stop spinning, I begged the bathroom. I leaned the top of my head against the door of the stall. Nice door. Please be cool. Fear of public toilets be damned, I would have lain down on the floor if I thought it would help. No such luck.
Through the crack in the door I saw a stunning woman standing by the sink in a crisp dress and shiny shoes, putting on lipstick. A soprano hummedscales as she waited outside my stall for me to finish whatever I was doing that was taking so long. The swish of dancers’ feet going through warm-ups vibrated through the floor. So many hopefuls trying out for so many shows. What am I doing here?
Prickly heat spread across my scalp and over my body like a swarm of fire ants. My turtleneck trapped the heat around my neck and throat. Water. I needed water. I burst out of the stall and awkwardly washed my hands, taking a sip of the lukewarm water while trying to keep from splashing the stunning lady and staring too hard at her exquisite face. Her hair wasn’t on fire. Not a strand was even out of place. How could anyone say no to you? I thought. I hope we’re not auditioning for the same thing.
I was hoping to land a spot in Listen to Your Mother 2012, the first New York production of a nationwide series of staged readings started by blogger Ann Imig that was, as the tagline proclaimed, “Giving Mother’s Day a microphone.” I’ve always been nervous by nature and nurture (my Asian-American fear of failure made me stick to what I knew). My long career publicizing other people’s books and my parenting style of cheering from the bench placed my comfort zone squarely on the sidelines. But when I turned 40 I turned a new leaf, realizing I wanted my life to grow rather than shrink. I started facing my fears and writing a blog: Facing Forty Upside Down. For the first time, I had stories to tell. The show’s logo, a woman speaking through a megaphone with her head thrown back, was a cri de coeur that spoke to my heart. “Listen to me!” I said out loud to the casting call in my email inbox, shaking my fist for good measure. “I, too, have things to say!”
It sounded simple enough, to read a five-minute original piece in front of a couple of the show’s producers. I had nothing to lose, apart from a morning when no one would normally be listening to me at all. Plus, my chances must be pretty good, I thought. How many Asian-American blogging mothers of children adopted from China could be auditioning for this? They’ll remember me. Especially if I wear my lucky red turtleneck.
That was all before I stepped through the elevator doors into the Ripley-Grier Studios in Manhattan’s Garment District, and took in the buzz of a million dreamers looking for their big stage or screen break in one of twenty-some rooms on this floor alone. And before I found the door marked Listen to Your Mother Auditions and met the woman waiting to audition right before me—a lovely Asian woman. In a red turtleneck. We looked at each other, mirror images of surprise, then panic. Cue sweating.
I’d excused myself to find the bathroom, and when it got too crowded in there to hide any longer, staggered like a drunken freshman back down the hall to wait on the bench next to my twin. A series of plaques hung on the wall, given by the United Stuntmen’s Association. I sighed. Wouldn’t life be great if we could call in a stuntman for all the really hard parts?
The door to the audition room opened, making me jump a little. The other Asian lady was called inside, and I wished her good luck. I sat up straighter on the hard bench, pulling out my script to study. Let the games begin.
“So how’d it go?” my girlfriend asked over the phone as soon as it was over.
“Apart from almost fainting when the producer pointed her iPhone at me and said, ‘You don’t mind if we film you, do you?’ it was fine,” I replied.
First, I’d taken in my surroundings. There was no mic. The space was small, but there was someone in another audition singing behind a curtain next to me. I’d have to project to be heard. There was no podium to hide behind or hang onto, just a few thin pages of script on a music stand. “Make believe you’re brave,” I whistled the lyrics from The King and I to myself and stood up straighter.
I took in my feelings. Without my heavy coat and bag, I felt so light I might blow away. I told myself why: I’m light-headed because my lizard brain thinks the unsmiling producer in front of me is going to eat me alive. And then tweet about it. So it’s diverting blood flow to my heart and gut. My brain needs oxygen. Luckily, there’s plenty of oxygen here.
I took a deep breath, relaxing my belly and puffing up with air, making myself take up space. I am here. I stopped floating away. With my next breath, I let the nerves go through me. Bring it on: the chills, the tingling, the dry mouth, the tight throat, all fight-or-flight reactions to feeling threatened, completely predictable. Let them come, let them go.
I set my feet slightly apart and turned out, with one foot in front, to make a stable platform that prevents (or minimizes) trembling and, with your best foot forward, projects I’m glad to see you! to your audience. It also gives you something to think about other than running out the door.
“It’s all just energy,” the poet Patrick Donnelly says about how to give an effective public reading. “Take any nervous energy you feel and turn it into energy for what you want to say.” Remembering why you’re in front of the audience makes how you look to them secondary. I thought of my two children, Gigi and Ruby, adopted five years apart from different regions in China, of how our becoming a family was a story of sadness and great joy to which I wanted somehow to give testimony. Their childhoods were going so fast, and I wanted one sublime piece of it to be on the record somewhere, forever. That’s why I was there.
I smiled, acknowledging the two producers and the camera, thanking them for listening. Then I did my best. I saw one producer wipe away a well-timed tear. The other never looked up from the script she was reading. The camera gave no feedback at all. They said thank you, they would let me know. The outcome was out of my hands, and I wouldn’t learn what it was for weeks.
“It was fun, actually. You should try out next year,” I said to my friend. From the sounds of her kids fighting World War III in the background, she had loads of material.
“Oh no,” she said. “It was bad enough when I had to give reports at work. Getting up in front of people is not my idea of fun. You’re probably a born performer.”
I’m not sure if I was born with whatever it takes to enjoy public speaking or if the emotional and professional rewards of doing it are what make it fun for me, but I love it, in spite of the nerves I always feel. I love communicating ideas and connecting with others, and I love watching other people do the same.
As the child of immigrants, I saw how my parents spoke up for my sister and me despite their accents; a fear of embarrassment never stopped them from reaching out on our behalf. When I was a book publicist, I trained writers to speak into the mic about their work with the same clear voice their words held on the page. Every time I saw expressions of interest or delight in the audience, or heard a gasp of recognition, I felt something magical had transpired. Laughing or crying as they left an event, or standing in line to thank the speaker for touching their lives, listeners seemed different from who they’d been when they’d walked in. Each of us holds the power to affect so many others when we get up to speak. As a blogger who helps people to face their fears, it’s a skill I wanted to share with everyone. But where would I find a large gathering of people afraid to speak in public?
Most people fear public speaking because they haven’t been trained in it,” says Rick Frishman, a media trainer, coach, and publisher. “Most people have been trained in how to handle numbers or work a computer program, or whatever their jobs are. If they trained to speak in public the same way, there would be much less fear.”
But most people don’t, so public speaking routinely ranks as a top fear; in some polls it outranks the fear of death. “My husband was a wreck for days before reading to our daughter’s second-grade class,” a manicurist confided. Her husband was a Force Recon Marine, a certified skydiver. “He made me bake brownies so they would like him no matter what.”
Whether it’s an evolutionary drive to hide our vulnerabilities from potential enemies or an existential longing to be understood, speaking in public is freighted with a lot more meaning than goes into the bulleted lists we put in our PowerPoint slides. The underlying emotional fears of rejection or humiliation or failure, plus the hope and ambition that fuel the pressure to perform, are a potent combination that hypercharges every public speaking event.
Since it can be easy to avoid the whole situation by not volunteering to get up and at ’em in the first place, those who decide to face this fear are usually highly motivated by a professional obligation or opportunity, or something they can’t get out of (like their own wedding toast). Fortunately, lots of help is available, from professional media coaches to web tutorials to books. And for 280,000 people and counting, there’s Toastmasters International, “the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching public speaking and leadership skills,” according to its press materials.
Toastmasters started as a club in a YMCA basement in Santa Ana, California, in 1924. In searching for a chapter near me, I discovered it now has 13,500 clubs in 116 countries, which speaks to the overwhelming need people feel across cultures to become more comfortable in front of an audience. Twenty-seven clubs met within 10 miles of my home in Westchester County, New York. I’d have my choice of where to begin my search.
What are you afraid of when you get up to speak?” asked a seasoned Toastmasters workshop leader named Elaine Rogers. Dressed in a pretty green suit with gold buttons, Elaine looked calm and in control as she smiled encouragingly. “Take the Terror Out of the Talk” read the PowerPoint slide behind her.
I was munching on pizza and salad along with a couple dozen other people in business attire who had come for the special workshop and the free lunch. A number of those present were curious about Toastmasters but had never come to a meeting before. Of course, most of them were there because they were afraid to speak up in the first place, so the silent chewing went on for a while. Eventually, the more experienced Toastmasters piped up.
“Forgetting the words.”
“My voice shaking.”
“People judging me.”
Then others started chiming in.
“My heart pounding.”
“Yes,” Elaine said. “Ever notice that when you’re nervous, you get a dry mouth and sweaty palms? Why couldn’t it be the opposite, dry palms and a lubricated mouth?” Everyone laughed. “All these are valid feelings when you come up here.”
The crux of her presentation came next: “The No. 1 antidote to fear is experience. Say it with me! The No. 1 antidote to fear is experience.”
Which means not hiding under the radar until called upon but volunteering to speak in a variety of settings again and again. Practicing, rehearsing, getting up, and doing until the nervous feelings become familiar and the belief in your ability to get through them is strengthened.
Toastmasters members shared their techniques for rehearsing without pressure—one did it in front of her puppy, who would love her no matter what. Patient or indifferent ears seem to work best. Another person said she rehearsed in front of her 23-year-old niece. “I can tell how I’m doing by the number of times she checks her text messages,” she said.
Over the next months, I became a regular at the club near me. At one meeting, a youthful-looking woman named Rosa was presented with what in Toastmasters parlance is called a Table Topic. In Table Topics, the host of a Toastmasters gathering asks the kind of question that might come up at a dinner party or around the office water cooler, and then participants riff on it for a minute or two apiece. As topics go, the one given to Rosa—“You have $80 to spend in Chicago. How would you spend it?”—was pretty tricky. To answer it, you’d have to do math (gah!) and draw on any knowledge you have of a city you may or may not have visited.
Rosa was tentative. “Um, I’d call my friend on the phone,” she said softly. “I would have to hitchhike in Chicago, because I only have $80,” she said, thinking out loud. A pause. Then more confidently: “I would enjoy the architecture in Chicago … ” Her voice trailed off. “I would spend about $30 on lunch.” Everyone laughed, wondering how much this little woman could possibly eat.
Rosa had come to Toastmasters because, she told me, “I’m painfully shy.” I had been surprised to hear that. Rosa is a pretty brunette who often wears her hair pulled back. Her thin, dark eyebrows arch over dark-rimmed glasses, giving her a serious demeanor. You could imagine her starring in a romantic comedy where the heroine doesn’t realize how beautiful she is until she lets down her hair and is transformed into Selena Gomez. She looks like someone who could assume the world would like to know her better, yet, while she sounded fine, she gave every appearance of wanting to hide. “What else would I do? How much money do I have left?” she asked. I wished I could slip her a note: $50, Art Institute of Chicago, Wrigley Field. But she was on her own and running out of steam. “I wouldn’t have to spend much money to walk around and enjoy the architecture,” she repeated, and we clapped as she sat down.
Natalie, the next speaker, was given $20,000 to spend in Madrid. She started off strong: “I’m a photographer, and I could buy a lot of great equipment with $10,000, so that’s what I would do first off!” But as she reached around for her next thought, it was as if an inner dimmer switch was getting turned down. She began to stand back on one leg, her weight shifting away from us. She looked down at the floor, thinking. When she spoke again, she tried to steady her voice. “I’d take the train out of Madrid and go to Portugal,” she said. Good job, I thought.
“You don’t have to answer the question as it’s asked” sounds like something only political spin doctors say, but in many situations it’s true: When you’re stumped, you can often redirect the discussion. Remember that you do know stuff. You have something to offer, so offer it without feeling lame or apologetic for not knowing everything at all times.
Natalie clearly knew more about Portugal than Madrid, and, now on comfortable terrain, she spoke fluently of Lisbon’s museums and restaurants. A minute later, she finished to applause.
In addition to giving impromptu talks, Toastmasters members complete 10 prepared speeches designed to practice different aspects of public speaking before attaining Competent Communicator status. After that there are advanced degrees and loads of certificates, ribbons, and medals to be won.
Everyone starts with an Ice Breaker, a four- to six-minute speech about oneself. Before she went up to do hers, I asked Natalie how she felt. “I’m riding on so much energy, I’m pumped up. I’m focusing more on my pumped-upness than my nervousness,” she said, clasping her hands. “Ooh, my hands are cold! When they call my name, I might fall on the floor! Will you catch me?”
“Your hair will not touch the carpet,” I promised. So much of the Toastmasters experience is about holding space for each other, knowing that when you open your mouth, others are listening, with the intention of helping you and also helping themselves. Any mistake is a public service in a way, because other members can learn from it. Evaluators give feedback on each speech, and assigned mentors help the speaker prepare for the next speech. Allowing your weaknesses to be addressed lets you improve far more efficiently than just praying to get your moment in the spotlight over with so that you can forget about it. Until the next time.
“Remember, you’re breaking the ice from the moment your energy begins to interact with others,” I said. “You’re wearing clothes that say, I’m a creative person.” Natalie was wearing a black turtleneck with a bright yellow necklace and a yellow skirt. “If you smile and look interested in your audience and invite them into your space, that’s breaking the ice. You’ll have done half your job just standing there.”
Many people fear public speaking because of what others may be thinking of them. The truth is, while many people won’t pay any attention to what you say, pretty much everyone will look at you.
And fortunately, you have a lot of control over how you appear.
“What three words do I want people to think when they see me today?” Style consultant Bridgette Raes says to ask yourself this question every time you get dressed. If the words are confident, smart, powerful, you’ll dress differently than if you’re trying for artistic, fun, free spirit. And if your clothes are in line with your message,
For many, learning techniques and getting experience and feedback are the ticket to speaking in public more freely. For others, who know their material cold and have performed perfectly thousands of times but freeze up (or live in fear of freezing up) when the stakes are high, more practice may not be what’s needed. Releasing ourselves from a fear of failure may be the key.
Barbra Streisand stopped giving live performances for 27 years after blanking on song lyrics in concert. Even Adele battles stage fright, telling Rolling Stone that she escaped out the fire exit at one show and has thrown up from nerves more than once. How does she cope with all the live performances she has to give? “I just think that nothing’s ever gone horrifically wrong,” she says in the article. She also cracks jokes and draws upon Sasha Carter, an alter ego she created to pump herself up that is Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce and country legend June Carter combined.
The stories of celebrities with stage fright are legion, but even with lower stakes, we all get that jolt of fear: This is the day everyone discovers I’m an idiot.
“I think that your courage goes as deep as the center of the earth,” said Tony Smith, a professional coach to many CEOs and public figures. Tony was a church acquaintance who would tell me during coffee hour that each of us has the power to transform the world, if we could release both our fear of failure and our fear of success. That was a welcome thought on the day of the Listen to Your Mother show. A few weeks after I auditioned, I got the news that I’d been chosen to be one of 15 readers for the Manhattan event. I was both thrilled and terrified at the prospect of reading my own words onstage. On the day of the show I stood in front of my closet, paralyzed by choice: heels or flats, lipstick or gloss, Spanx or sucking in. Which kept my mind off thinking of all that could go wrong.
“Things going wrong” is its own category when it comes to reasons people dread public speaking. Things go wrong all the time in life, but when it’s in front of other people, it feels exponentially worse. And because there is no end to the number of ways things could go wrong—up to and including tripping and falling off the stage—it’s much better to spend your time controlling what you can control—meaning, rehearsing your speech and doing your hair. Decisions made: Heels. Gloss. Sucking in.
I had practiced my reading on friends; I’d taped myself and given myself my own stinging critique. I had connected with my noble intent, which was twofold. I wanted to tell the story of my daughters with love. And to do my job well.
I was first in the lineup. The way I saw it, my job was to assure the audience that they were in the right place; that their money had been well spent; that they wouldn’t be trapped in their seats for the next hour and a half with lunatics—or bores—at the mic. The producers told me they wanted to open the program with “warm and funny,” and, darn it, that’s what I was going to be.
I had, as Toastmasters instructed, visualized success. It all started off as I had envisioned. René Syler, former host of The Early Show on CBS, introduced me, and I stepped up to the podium, feeling tall and proud. I’m so glad I wore my heels, I thought. I’m accessing my power.
I took my stance, relaxed my belly, breathed in oxygen, let the nerves go. I greeted the audience with a warm smile, beaming all my good energy to meet theirs. The first line went well. I think the next sentence or two were also fine. Then … the spotlight on me turned off. Then the lights went up—on the audience.
Standing at the podium in the dark, my brain was taken over by a 2-year-old on a rampage. I only have five lousy minutes to say what I want to say! Is that asking too much?
Grown-up Patty tried to contain the tantrum. Welcome! I’m warm and funny! Everything is fine! Pay no attention to the darkness around me! It felt familiar, this sensation of trying to act in control when things were actually bursting into flame all around me. Why? Because it’s just like being a mother.
I smiled a real smile. Success is being here and enjoying it, I realized, and holding center stage, flying by the seat of my pants, was the most exhilarating thing I’d done in ages. I set up for a punch line, wanting only to share the memory, no longer afraid whether anyone would laugh. The audience roared.
After I finished (and with the spotlight working again) I sat and watched the other brave souls step up and tell their stories. There were tales of an Italian mom’s cooking, more than one mom’s craziness, and an aging mom’s need of caretaking. There were stories of toddler mayhem, and twins after infertility. And there was a bittersweet reminder that motherhood leads to an empty nest.
On that stage there was a shaky voice here, a tear shed there, and 15 unforgettable stories. Everyone triumphed. No one died.
I once asked a yoga teacher who taught me the handstand, how to contend with voices that say “Don’t do it, it might end badly.” In return, she asked three questions worth asking oneself every day: “Why do you think you’re here to hide? What if you being out there was a gift to the world? And what if what you thought was dangerous was a lie?”
The part of me that is afraid of being ignored and afraid of being heard, that seeks a path of least resistance and greatest comfort, the me that whispers, “Don’t bother, why risk anything, no one will notice if you sit this one out,” is the dead man talking, seeking an anxiety-free life. But the life worth living is the one worth the effort, the discomfort, the throat clearing, and soul baring.
I believe in the power of stories to change minds, open hearts, connect people, and create a better world. We imagine something and then we do not keep it to ourselves. We declare it, in front of others—then progress is possible. This is why cavemen did not hide in the dark. They built fires, told stories, and advanced civilization.
We all speak for someone or something, and each of us is more powerful than we know. Whom do I speak for? For the people who think they can’t. Come out of the bathroom. The world needs you!
Reprinted from Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2013 by Patty Chang Anker.
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