The perennial trauma of public speaking

The perennial trauma of public speaking

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We talk constantly. We speak to our spouses when we wake up, to our children when we try to get them up, to our friends on the way to work, to the person preparing our morning bagel, and on and on. Most of that speech is automatic.

“Hey, how are you doing?”
“Great, you?”
“Can’t complain. I mean, I could complain but who’d listen?”

When we’re not talking, we often hear an internal dialogue.

“Why didn’t you demand a raise?”
“Next time, next time.”
“You’re always saying that. This is next time.”
“Hey, stop yelling at me!”

Words are as natural most of the time as the steps we take on the way to or from the car, down the block, or up the stairs. We don’t think, “Left, right, left, right.” Wait, no, isn’t it, “Right, left, left, right, right?”

And yet, something happens to the natural flow of words when we have to give a speech. It’s not the same for everyone. I suspect many politicians are so comfortable giving speeches that they just need to know where the camera is to share their eloquence.

That’s not exactly the word I’d use to describe the times I’ve had to speak in front of large, or even medium-sized groups. I’ve spoken out in meetings many times about stories, offering my opinion or awareness of the history of an evolving story to a group of editors.

I’m fine in those situations. It’s when I get up in front of a group of people, many of whom I don’t know, to share some words on a subject that the discomfort begins.

I lick my lips regularly before I begin, as the saliva that pours forth from my mouth so readily at other times has decided that this moment is the ideal time to take a vacation.

My breathing becomes shallow and quick. “I, uh, would, uh, like to, uh, say a few words.”

Speeches are like walking on the bottom of the ocean, wearing heavy boots and breathing through a small tube. Suddenly, the words become like unknown and unseen obstacles, blocking the path to communicating something charming, witty, insightful and cohesive.

“Uh, hi, I’m, uh, uh, Dan, right, Dan.”

Why do those public words become so unfamiliar and uncomfortable? Is it because we can’t correct them? Do we feel as if we need to perform the words instead of just sharing what’s percolating in our minds at the time?

In the middle of a speech, we can’t say, “Where was I? Oh, yes, that’s it. I could really use a tuna sandwich right now.”

I recently gave a short speech in front of a group celebrating my brother’s birthday. I didn’t know many of the people in the room and even though it was a receptive audience, I started to feel the typical nerves building up in those last few moments.

The speech went fine, or so people have assured me. But then, of course, the voices in my head shared their customary public-speech criticism.

I became like all those pundits who second guess every word and decision after an election or after the big game. “You know,” I thought to myself, “you should have started with this joke. That would have been funnier.”

“Oh yeah?” I wanted to bark back at that self-critical voice. “Where were you 10 minutes ago?”

“I was here, you just couldn’t hear me because too many other voices were up here, shouting into your ear not to mess up.”

Yet it always seems to turn out all right. Until the next time.