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The Terrors of Public Speaking

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By Kristin Backert-Evans

Many of my students will tell me that they’re dreading an upcoming presentation and that public speaking is their least favorite thing in the world. I don’t blame them! Public speaking comes with a unique brand of horror, and it’s something that many people, students and professionals alike, struggle with. Knowing that you might freeze in front of a group of people or might misspeak is a terrifying thought.

Last month, I attended a comic book signing. I was super excited and blew through tons of things that the author had written so that I would be more familiar with his work. But as the signing day got closer, I found that I was dreading it and secretly hoping that it would get canceled. Maybe an earthquake would occur and swallow the comic shop, or maybe a bear would tear through the shop and eat all of the comics. Alas! No more signing!

Even though I was so excited, I was incredibly nervous about speaking to the writer. After all, if you’re going to get something signed, there’s going to be at least a little bit of small talk. In this case, I was going to talk to a guy who redefined my perception of a character, so what on earth could I possibly say to him? Anything that I attempted to say would either be something that he had heard before (“OMG I love your work”), something inane (“uhhh….hi…umm….bye”), or maybe just a vague garbled sound as I choked on my words (“BLARG!”). And if I said something silly, I would possibly perish on the spot. Not only that, I knew that I would likely look ridiculous: when I’m nervous about speaking, I tend to turn red, shake, and sweat. Better to avoid this pain by simply not going to the signing, right?

Although my head said that the logical thing to do was to pretend that the signing wasn’t happening so that I would avoid some mental pain, my heart said otherwise. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve wanted to speak to someone that I admired but ended up chickening out. I’ll never forget the time that I saw David Quammen, one of my favorite science writers, speak at the National Book Festival a few years ago. My husband and I hung back so that we could chat with Quammen afterwards, but I was so nervous that I didn’t say anything; my husband ended up having to carry the whole conversation. I nodded along while they spoke, but I don’t think that I actually heard what they were talking about because I was mentally yelling at myself to say anything, say something, just speak! Oh, I can message authors and such on social media without any problems, but the second they’re literally standing in front of me, it’s like my brain decides that my mouth can’t work and that all power must be diverted to making me turn red as a tomato.

Even though I knew that there was a chance of internal humiliation, I also knew that skipping the comic signing wasn’t ideal because I would feel bummed about not meeting the writer. In order to prepare myself for the inevitable small talk, I had to do a lot of reflecting. Would I turn red and possibly shake? Yes, but there were steps that I could take to mitigate those things, like take deep breaths while waiting in line to calm myself down. And even if I did turn red, so what? Surely I wasn’t the only person in this long line who felt nervous, and no one was really going to pay attention to another fan in line. The most important thing that I did, in my humble opinion, was plan in advance what I wanted to say. For several days, I ran through potential options that wouldn’t embarrass me on the spot. When it came time to get my comic signed, I introduced myself and paused because I could feel my heart starting to go wild. But I took a deep breath and used one of the lines that I had thought of a few days prior, and I actually said it! Just the act of getting that sentence out instantly made me feel better. And when the writer responded positively, that feeling of validation was awesome. We spoke for a few more seconds, and then, boom, it was over.

Days and days of agonizing over a 30-second interaction is nothing new to me, but it’s something that I’m actively trying to change. While I’ll still probably have catastrophic thoughts about everything that could go wrong, I know that I can tell myself something like, “True, but if the comic shop doesn’t get hit by a meteor, here are some things that we can say to the next writer.” This will probably continue to be a work in progress for a long time, but it’s something I’m happy to work toward.

Erica MechlinskiThe Terrors of Public Speaking

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