Once upon a time, there was a girl who couldn’t speak. Her words caught in her throat, built up in her mouth like a river choked with rocks. She dreaded meeting new people, speaking to shop keepers, even everyday conversations with friends, but most of all she dreaded speaking in public. Anticipating a class presentation, she lost sleep and felt sick for weeks beforehand. Finally sitting down again, after struggling through words that stuck and swelled behind her tongue, she was filled with both relief and mortification. Her most intense joy at finishing school, was that she need NEVER EVER stand up and speak in public again. Of course that was far from the truth, but it did get easier. At University, people were nicer about it, and after that, for the most part she stayed happily out of the spotlight. Over these quiet years: a time of motherhood, art-making, and increasing freelance work and part time jobs that demanded interaction with other people, the blockages started to fall away and words began to run from her like water. She became increasingly passionate about sharing her love of art and stories, and found herself more and more able to discuss them with confidence and enthusiasm. She almost forgot she had a stutter, though it still emerged from time to time. She began to find it easier to speak to a crowd when she needed too, and one day when she was invited to run some school holiday workshops, she suddenly realised that she wasn’t nervous at all. They went well: she told stories and held the interest of her young crowd, they had fun, the clouds parted, birds sang, and they all lived happily ever after.
Right. Well. It goes something like that. Anyone who knows me well, knows that my feelings towards public speaking have long sat alongside my opinions on medieval dentistry and skydiving. Not for me. When placed under pressure, if my words don’t freeze, then my brain does. So, no one was more surprised than me, when I found myself speaking in front of a crowd (admittedly, of mostly 8-12 year olds) and enjoying it. I wasn’t trying to rush to the end; my words didn’t tumble and halt. In fact, I can’t wait to do it again. Being in front of a crowd has become incrementally easier over the years, and certainly doesn’t hold that same classroom terror, but this was the first time that it felt easy. And I think I’ve worked out why.
There were more people here than it looks!
A few days after the workshops, I stumbled across an article
about public speaking by Adam Grant on Twitter, and there was one quote that felt like a lightning bolt. ‘Don’t try to calm down
… Instead of saying “I am calm,” people gave more compelling speeches when they said “I am excited.”’ Grant’s reasoning is that a calm person is a boring one, and anyway it’s near impossible to turn down the adrenaline if it’s already coursing through your veins. So, channel that fear into excitement.
I realised that’s exactly what I had been doing in the workshops. I love and get excited by the mix of art, illustration, storytelling and the representation and interpretation of fairy tales. I love thinking about it and, it turns out, I love talking about it. True enthusiasm imparts far more on-stage confidence than beta blockers and five espressos ever will. Excitement for a subject is the best confidence booster there is. Well, that and knowledge. There’s nothing like that warm feeling of knowing what you’re talking about.
I do have a stutter, and probably always will, but it’s no longer debilitating. In fact I can go days without it ever making an obvious appearance. And I now know that if I’m excited and knowledgable about an idea, I can get it across to other people. I can’t say that I won’t make a numpty out of myself next time, but at least I feel it’s something I can, and want, to do again. And that’s a good feeling.
So if you struggle with speaking, ignore the advice to stay calm or imagine the audience naked (what?) or have a stiff drink beforehand (don’t do that). Do your research, and get excited. And have that stiff drink after.
Do you speak in public? Do you enjoy it? Does it terrify the pants of you? What’s your best advice to those who would rather be getting a root canal?