Here’s a paradox: I have a reputation for being a fabulous public speaker - but I loathe speaking in public.
If any circumstance arises where it looks as though I will be required to speak in front of even a small group, or if I am invited or obliged to address a larger group, I immediately break out in a cold sweat: my heart begins to beat faster, I feel slightly nauseous, and (most prominently in all of these symptoms) the palms of my hands begin to perspire profusely. (The hands thing can be really quite distressing - perspiration almost drips from my fingers after a while.) If standing, my knees quiver almost visibly and I feel dizzy - it seems as though I will almost certainly lose my balance unless I walk around or take a firm grip of something. Mentally, I am entirely preoccupied with fear, even when the event might be in several weeks’ time.
And yet I am known as ‘one of the funniest speakers ever’, someone brimming with confidence, who can put audiences at ease, smooth out the wrinkles in public events, and soothe other speakers’ nerves. I used to be asked to be the Master of Ceremonies as a first choice; I was booked for every kind of engagement. One weekend in 2013, I did 11 different public speaking events in three days.
I don’t quite understand it. When confronted with praise after these events, I explain that the podium was hiding my shaking knees and that I was in cold dread throughout. So it struck me that I should possibly examine what was happening here and how I had developed a set of actions which seemed to work, even in the most trying circumstances and in the face of subjective facts.
When first asked to address a crowd of about two hundred people in an official capacity, I made the decision to do so without reference to any but the most basic notes scribbled on a tiny piece of paper held crunched up in my hand. I also decided to walk around on the stage. The paper contained a series of headings in almost indecipherable writing at which I could glance if I lost my way. I can’t recall how I arrived at the decision to make the scenario that much worse - surely, it would have been saner to have a dense pack of notes and to remain motionless behind a podium? But no, for some reason this was the approach I decided to take. Perhaps I was trying to create an impression, or perhaps I felt that being in motion would soothe my nerves.
I’d only been on stage for any length of time once before in my life. I’d been forced to participate in a school theatrical show composed of short comedy sketches. I remember standing in the wings almost trembling with fear. As soon as I stepped onto the stage, however, I was ‘in character’: I immediately adopted a set of physical mannerisms and quirks, none of which had even entered my head while I was in the wings. They seemed to descend upon me like a set of clothes, creating an entire persona in an instant. Somehow that brief performance paid off and I won the acting award for the entire show. But I had been petrified throughout (and afterwards, when I had to go on stage to collect the award).
My first venture into proper public speaking, many years later, went similarly spectacularly well: I was both greeted with, and acknowledged by, rapturous applause. Afterwards, audience members congratulated me and expressed amazement at how cool and confident I had looked. This astonished me - and unfortunately meant that I was booked for further engagements.
Again and again the same thing happened: terror, accompanied by physical reactions, entirely at odds with glowing performances and acclaim.
How was my inner emotional state being hidden so well?
There are two main elements, as far as I can see, that enabled me to speak in public despite almost paralysing personal horror:
1. Telling a story.
Rather than composing a ‘speech’, when asked to go on stage I would instead invent or remember a story. This had and has tremendous advantages over a prosaic speech: firstly, a story is easy to remember. One is not trying to recall an artificially imposed set of steps, as one might try to do if delivering a standard speech - this paragraph followed by that paragraph followed by that paragraph. A story is completely different: it is a piece of drama, with a beginning, a middle and an end; it flows in the mind in quite a dissimilar way to dry information; it acts upon an entirely different part of the audience’s imagination; and it means that, in a peculiar way, the audience’s attention is no longer on the speaker but instead on the described events - they begin to picture what you’re saying and to be absorbed by it, to be captivated and led on by it.
This works even better if it’s a funny story, and one can do voices and mannerisms. Audiences crave entertainment: they want to be in affinity with the speaker, they want to feel that they can share in something, they want to know that the speaker is in control and that they can relax. Storytelling addresses all of these wants.
So my first piece of advice about public speaking is a powerful one: construct what you have to say around a story or anecdote, or series of anecdotes. Keep them simple; make them funny, if possible. The ‘punchline’ should be the message of your speech. If you’re talking about a particular subject, sum up with a punchline which encapsulates what you want them to take away.
Use the power of stories to convey your points as much as you possibly can.
2. Rehearsing in your head.
Rehearsing is important, and if possible you should ‘drill’ the speech in the actual venue at which you’ll be giving the talk when there’s no one - or only a few sympathetic people - around. But, oddly enough, this isn’t essential: the trick is to be able to rehearse the whole thing over and over without notes entirely in your head.
You imagine yourself on stage; you imagine how you’ll open the story; you imagine your first funny moment, or twist, or punchline. You imagine the progression from one part of the speech to the next: where you’ll be, how you’ll stand, any gestures or movements you’ll make. You imagine the whole thing, even with its carefully-timed pauses, again and again and again.
This has two major benefits for you: one is that you will have somewhere to channel your nerves. Don’t just sit there (or lie in bed) full of terror: practise, in your head, the whole story, step by step. You don’t have to memorise a script, but you should have the key bits tightly worded so that you can ‘spell them out’ in your mental rehearsal. The second benefit is that, when the time comes, and you step out onto the stage, instead of being terrifyingly strange, it will have an element of ‘deja vu’ about it: the faces may not have been there in your imaginings, the place may seem larger (or smaller, or differently lit) than in your mental rehearsals, but in the back of your mind there is a strong, supportive familiarity - your ‘routine’, what you are going to do and say, how it is all going to go, is totally there, ready to be ‘acted out’.
Sure, some things may not go exactly as you had planned; you might make a slip here or something may interrupt you there. But the bulk of the thing will just roll out more or less as you imagined it. You’ll be ‘performing an act’ rather than delivering a speech. And the audience will respond favourably.
Another small thing - you don’t have to look directly at your audience: look slightly above them. You’ll have a general impression that there is a body of people there, but you won’t be put off by them. The people in the rows closest to the front will think you’re looking at the rows just behind; the people in the rows just behind will think something of the same thing. And the people in the rows at the back will forget that they are in the back row, because they will be so entranced by your story.
Here’s another part to this: because you are telling a story, you will know when to end. End the thing; don’t let it drag on. If you try to work without a script and don’t follow a storytelling model, you can fall into the trap of going on too long. Audiences wither in front of long, rambling speeches; and a story has to be particularly gripping to keep them focused for more than about twenty minutes.
Watch some stand-up comedians. You can learn a lot about public speaking from them. I used to walk around a lot, for example. It drove the tech people crazy when they were trying to video me, but it did my nerves good and it added action into whatever story I was telling.
Also, use props if you can. They help you to stay focused and they direct the audience’s attention off you. I once walked onto the stage with a replica sword, unsheathing it as part of the story I was telling. It hooked everyone in.
I’d like to be able to say that after a while your nerves will go away. This isn’t exactly what happens, though, at least not in my experience. You do (or I did) gradually become more adept at being on stage, able to deviate from my internal ‘script’, able to ‘ad lib’ as required, able to handle different kinds of audiences. But the terror will remain. What’s happening is that you are becoming more familiar with your tools, cleverer with your stories, and more able to be flexible with an audience. This all covers up the emotional dread you’re still feeling so that people don’t believe you when you explain your loathing for the whole business.
That’s my main advice: storytelling and mental rehearsal of the same. It will lead to you getting invited to do more public speaking, though. I used to joke that the only way to avoid getting further bookings was to go on stage drunk and make a total disaster of it.
I may still try that one day…