But my job demanded that I do it. Regularly.
I remember one particularly stressful conference I attended, where, two days before my speech, I had to rush off to my hotel room to take a Valium, simply to get through the day.
Product launches, press conferences, even internal training courses I ran: they all meant I had to get up on my hind legs and address a group of people.
And I did it. Time after time. Bathed in sweat and feeling sick inside.
It got so bad, this fear, that I consulted various professionals for help. A clinical psychologist (he prescribed beta blockers that turned my guts to water).
A counsellor (she advised me to re-parent myself).
And a hypnotherapist (she took me back to my childhood – and very nearly left me there). But a funny thing happened.
Because I am what you might call a driven person, I didn’t back away from speaking opportunities. They represented a challenge. I knew that if I buckled I might never do it again. And what else might I start running from? Meetings? Business lunches?
I had a terrifying vision of myself sitting on a park bench drinking from a bottle concealed in a paper bag. Somewhat apocalyptic looking back, but that’s where the fear had taken me.
So every time I was asked to speak, I gritted my teeth and clenched my buttocks and said… “yes”.
I prepared obsessively. I rehearsed and rehearsed until I could do it without notes.
I researched everything I possibly could about the venue, the audience, the seating plan, even the food.
I had a lucky suit. It was a very sober navy. I wore it every time. It was like a carapace, protecting me from the psychological torments of presenting.
And maybe because of my anxiety at doing a poor job, or my compulsive over-preparation, I began to get good at it., As I got better, people started to smile more and clap for longer. And I started to get a buzz out of it.
Somewhere along the line, I turned a corner.
I still felt nervous before giving a speech or presentation, but I no longer felt the need for pharmaceutical support. I read widely on how to prepare and found a book called Performance Strategies for Musicians that was immensely helpful.
Three insights I have discovered about myself, and public speaking in general are these:
Unless you collapse physically, nobody in your audience will be able to tell how you are feeling. I have delivered talks while having a full-blown panic attack, and people have come up afterwards and told me they wished they could be as relaxed as me.
People are on your side. The fear of public speaking is so widespread that the natural human tendency towards empathy kicks in. They want you to do well. So you can feed off that positive energy. The simplest way is to find someone who looks at you and smile at them. They will smile back. It helps.
To err is human. You do not have to be perfect. Focusing on being yourself really helps. If you read in a book or report that you should stand in a certain way or speak in a certain way and that doesn’t feel natural to you, don’t do it. But find something that does feel natural and do that.
Now that I am in what you might charitably call the middle part of my career, I have discovered that I like speaking in public more than many other aspects of business life.
But it has been a long, and not always comfortable journey. I have friends and colleagues who haven’t managed to slay this particular demon. Which is a great shame, both personally and professionally.
As copywriters, we are in the communications business so it would be natural to extend our expertise with words to the oral realm. Yet many of us can’t – or won’t – because we are incapacitated by fear.
There is something perverse in a world that accords so much status, respect and admiration to an activity so inherently frightening. Or maybe there isn’t. Perhaps it is precisely because it’s so hard that those who crash through the pain barrier and do it anyway get the prizes.
I have lost count of the people I’ve spoken to, and trained, on the subject of public speaking, who really hate it. And I always tell them the same thing: don’t run away. Run towards.
I wrote a little e-book in an attempt to help. I give it away free to students on our Breakthrough Copywriting course.
Here’s what one of them emailed me to say:
“Just a quick note to say what a brilliant resource you included in your email. I battled with ‘The Fear’ for years each time I had to present in my former career (PR), which really was a pain considering I was constantly pitching or having to present project reviews to clients. Your ebook not only made me smile, but also made me realise how common it is to experience the unpleasant effects of adrenaline at the very moment you want to look your most professional – even for those who are very good at hiding it!”
I now see public speaking as part of a whole tier of reputation-building activities that I do for the good of my business and my sense of self. But also because I like teaching.
I have chaired and spoken at conferences, run workshops and given lunchtime talks. I’ve even gone into my children’s school and spoken to a class-full of proto-copywriters.
Now that IS scary.