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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fear Report: Public Speaking...

I was reading an article about public speaking and the fact that it is one of the most common fears people have, and I found myself nodding in agreement. I guess the main thing is that people feel as though they will be judged by the people in the audience.

When little kids are shy, we try so hard to get them to sing a song for the grandparents or dance for the video camera. But the real test is the first time a kid has to read aloud from a book in class. Oh, how I used to cringe when the little idiots in my class couldn’t read; I was always that little jerk, thoughtfully correcting them or finishing the word when a kid was attempting to sound it out. I had no idea I was such an ass. I hope I didn’t contribute to anyone having to spend years in therapy.

Note to parents: Read to your children, every day until they are old enough to read, and then have them read to you. They will appreciate it when they start school and have to read in front of the other students.


So for me being such a smart-aleck in elementary school, you’d think that I would have been at ease with reading aloud in class in middle and high school. Well, I was. In fact, I loved the sound of my own voice and used every opportunity to share it with others. I did get my chance in high school where I actually had a little radio show. Oh sure, I was nervous my first time the microphone went live, but I went home and listened to a tape of myself over and over. Pure genius; I would be the next Scott Shannon. Of course, I wasn’t and instead, I joined the military.

During my first several years in the military, I made extra money playing records in the base club or Dee-Jaying at unit parties. At the young age of 19, I emceed a unit Christmas party like an expert – who knows, I may have been the next Bert Parks!

I tell you this information not because I am hoping to be voted into the next round of America’s Got Talent, but to point out that the mind is quite an interesting thing. With a single embarrassing situation, I went from being an extremely self-confident (though admittedly, not very polished) public speaker to someone who has had to battle extreme panic attacks not just moments before having to speak publicly, but for days and often weeks in advance.

In 1985 during my first assignment to San Antonio, I was to be presented a medal along with a group of probably twenty or so people. On the day of the presentation, I came into work in full service dress uniform, ready for the ceremony. Most units have different methods for presenting medals. In some cases, a single individual is recognized, so it is a small ceremony in the office. In other places, they will have lots of awards to present, so each recipient sits in the audience until his or her name is called, then they approach the commander and the award is presented. This would be different. We had a large unit with lots of medals to be presented, so the plan was to line-up about 20 or more of us and as the emcee would read off the citation to accompany the award; the commander would stand in front of the person pinning the medal on him. Seems like a good idea to make it go fast.

About an hour before the ceremony, I realized that I was sweating profusely. In fact, it was pretty evident that I was getting the flu or something. My uniform shirt was soaked, and to be honest, I felt like crap. And I made several important trips to the men's room to prove it. I recall going to my supervisor, and telling him that I might need to go to sick-call and further, the idea of standing at Attention up on the stage for at least 20 minutes while everybody got their awards was not sounding too exciting. The guy was only slightly sympathetic but he did go and ask a superintendent if they could just present my medal at the next ceremony. Instead, there was some lame excuse about the script having already been written for the emcee, and a change so close (an hour) from the ceremony might screw things up. “Suck it up” was basically the response.

An hour later, being the lowest ranking member receiving a medal, I was the last guy in line up on the stage. One by one as the medals were presented; I could feel the sweat just rolling down my face and under my jacket. I must have been going white as a sheet because I recall making somewhat fuzzy eye contact with this Colonel in the front row of the packed auditorium. He kept mouthing the words to me, “Sit Down… Sit Dow… Sit Down.” It never occurred to me what he was saying until gravity and the stars I was seeing took over and as gracefully as possible, I sat my ass down on the stage. In front of my entire unit. It wasn't as if I was in the middle of the stage sitting flat on the floor, we were actually at the edge, of a slightly raised dais, so really, I simply sat on the stage with my feet on the regular floor. Either way, if people laughed, I had no idea - I was out of it.

Technically, I never lost consciousness because, when I realized I was sitting on my ass when all those around me were standing at attention, I stood up and took the position of attention. That was not a really good idea. Once again, more eye contact with the Colonel in the front row and the whole mouthing of “Sit Down… Sit Down…” My response (still in the position of attention) was to shake my head “No”. But my legs said otherwise.

If you have ever seen a military parade, they usually have the fall-out crew somewhere in the back. When people stand in formation for a period of time, there is always the chance that some dipshit will lock his knees and before long, the blood flow stops and they pass-out cold. This can be quite entertaining from the spectator’s point of view. More often than not, (at least in the Air Force) someone will attempt to catch the poor bastard. But sometimes, if you are lucky, you will see a masterfully executed faceplant. Good times. The fall-out crew comes and retrieves the passed-out guy and he is hauled off to a waiting ambulance where orange juice and severe amounts of ridicule are provided. Remember, the best training methods the Air Force ever invented are Fear, Sarcasm, and Ridicule.

In my case, when I “took a seat” on the stage the second time, there was no fall-out crew. I would have just as soon had two large guys run onto the stage, grab me by the arms and legs and just haul me out of the place, but apparently, that wasn't in the emcee’s script either, so I just sat there for several seconds and finally, stood up, stood at attention, had the commander pin a medal on my chest, salute and thankfully, being the last person to be presented, left the stage to thunderous applause, taking a seat in the back of the audience with my office mates.

This was a commander’s call, so for the next hour, I had to sit with my co-workers poking me to be sure I was okay while simultaneously laughing at me for being such a clown. Reviews were mixed. Several conspiracy theorists thought I had concocted the entire near-fainting sequence as a joke – just to see if I could pull it off. Others suggested I was just a retard who had locked his knees. My supervisor felt like crap, knowing that I most likely really was coming down with the flu.

At the end of the day, I just chocked it up to “Shit happens” and before long; I hadn’t given it another thought.

About a year and a half later, we were stationed in Italy. Not long after, I was notified that I would be receiving another medal. As the day approached, I suddenly began experiencing serious anxiety attacks regarding the thought of standing up on a stage and getting a medal. I skipped the presentation. And so it would go for the remainder of my career, either skipping out of presentations, or at least arranging to have them presented within my office with co-workers.

But in the military, you have many opportunities to be not only seen, but heard. For example, when Big Whigs visit, they usually take them on tours of the various offices and expect briefings on projects or at least a quick overview of what the job is. In most of the cases, I was able to shirk off the responsibility to someone else, eager to be seen and heard in front of a general officer (we call those people brown-nosers). This worked well for the most part, but in a/effect, what I was doing was taking a one time, easily understandable near-fainting incident and turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of thing.

There were times when I simply could not avoid speaking in public. When I had to give a presentation as part of a course for example, there was no way out. Everybody in the class would know my situation and even though I would have a room full of people supporting me, and I always got through it without passing out, it was still a painful exercise.

And the problem got worse. Over time, it was no longer a matter of standing on a stage or giving a presentation before a small group. I actually would get nauseous at the beginning of meetings with the anticipation of the standard going around the room and having people introduce themselves with a brief explanation of who they were. I began to actually write my name and the office I was from on a note book so I could just read from my notes in case I simply lost my mind and couldn't remember.

If you have ever been to a conference or a meeting of people from many different organizations, it is not uncommon for people to give a near National Geographic length documentary about their background, what their position is, what they hope to bring to the meeting and what they hope to gain from it. Then they get to me: Name, rank, serial number.

And even in meetings within my own office where I knew and easily conversed with people on a daily basis, there was something about going from the casual office chit-chat to the now official meeting. I could go on and on about this - and if you ask my wife, by now I probably have. This stupid thing just got worse over time; not better.

Obviously, I have learned many work arounds or I probably would be unemployable. For the type of work I do, you must be able to communicate with others, and I do.

More recently, I have been doing a lot of work with our neighborhood association and our neighborhood watch group. This has meant getting up in front of a small crowd of people and not only having to speak, but actually stand before people and attempt to make sense of things. I cannot tell you how extremely painful it was the week leading up to and finally getting up to speak at the first meeting. I had prepared myself with a bottle of water at an arms length, if only to douse myself in the event I started to see stars. In truth, the practice and the experience gained each time has made the next meeting easier and this confidence has helped with the times I have to speak in my job.

Several months ago, as part of my neighborhood watch program, I was asked to make a presentation to some people from the City of San Antonio. I agreed to do it, after much fretting I might add, but only because I was under the impression it would be a relatively small group. Along with another member of our neighborhood group, we got to the meeting place and found a small auditorium which eventually was standing room only. And at this point, there was no backing out.

As we waited for our turn to speak, I could feel my body reacting to the panic that was taking over my body. I sat down, stood up, walked around, sat down and tried to do whatever I could to relax. Finally, when we were on, it occurred to me that what I had to say was really important. It wasn't the sound of my own voice that made me find my inner Freddie Mercury that day, but instead the fact that the message must be delivered. Clearly nervous at first, I somehow made the words flow - and they did. By some accounts, it was 40 minutes; more than twice what was expected.

That experience helped me tremendously, but there would be more. We were asked again to make a presentation for the city, but this time in a theater before a larger crowd. While I felt more confident, I was still understandably nervous. This would be like going from the kiddie pool to the high dive in one quick step.

This time, instead of two of us with me having the major speaking part, we would bring four speakers and handle it as a group presentation. This eased my mind. I would be second to speak, basically had a page worth of stuff to say, and that would be it. The rest of the time, I would just stand on the stage and look pretty. I've got that part down.

Because we were attempting to stick to a strict schedule, our group decided we would basically read our scripts to go along with the slides we had as opposed to trying to speak more extemporaneously. We got together and practiced a few times, and I felt pretty comfortable with the delivery - not only mine, but everyone else's.

On the day of the big speech, I showed up with honestly, all the confidence I could have asked for. We went in the theatre and checked out the stage, the podium, the computer for our slides and such, and honestly, the place seemed very comforting. We were set to speak right after lunch, and the entire morning, I was fairly confident, actually asking a few questions as an audience member.

The conference (as they normally do) was running a little behind schedule, so they decided to serve lunch and then continue with the presentations as people ate. With a plate full of vegetarian lasagna in front of me, the guy who was speaking just before our group began what was supposed to be a 15 minute speech. He was a member of our state legislature and apparently, nothing that can be easily said in 15 minutes should take less than 45 minutes to an hour (not unlike the things I write about in my blog).

So as this gentleman rambled on, I looked over and noticed that the three of my co-presenters were each reading their scripts. Hah! They must be nervous! I casually pulled out my script and got about two lines into it (the part where I say my name and the organization I represent) and suddenly, as if on cue, I began to feel nauseous, lightheaded, cold, clammy, and any other symptom one might incur with a case of stage fright. I took several sips from my bottled water and tried to listen to the state representative casually read from his notes. I just needed to calm down and relax like him. Let's face it, many people would still be munching on their lunch when we got up to speak, they wouldn't notice if I sounded a little nervous.

For the next twenty minutes, my body and my mind went through cycle after cycle of complete calm and confidence to shear terror. I actually was contemplating making a quick alteration to the script so one of my other presenters could simply read my portion in the event I had passed-out before reaching the stage. I understand now, and I understood then, that this was all so silly, even though being nervous was natural for all but the most experienced speakers. I recall reading a book about Willard Scott where he says that he suffered from such extreme stage fright during his career that he actually had to take a half-pill of Valium before every Today Show broadcast.

Finally, the representative finished his presentation and our group headed for the stage. Like a present from heaven, my fears were suddenly gone. I walked to the stage in complete confidence knowing that I could stand and deliver a full two or three minutes worth of insightful information to an appreciative crowd, and quite possibly, we would be asked to go on Oprah or Letterman.

And then as the first speaker was making his way through his script, the cycle came around and I could feel my legs begin to wobble. This was not a problem, actually. I had been in this situation before and I knew that I just needed to get started and life would be good. I would relax, my voice would be clear, and the words would come out.

And they did. And then after about the third or forth sentence, I realized that I had not taken a single breath since beginning to speak.

I don't know about you, but one of the things that happens to me quite often (and this may say a lot about me) is that I suddenly drift into commentary like conversations in my mind, even though I am in the middle of a conversation with another person, or in this case, a theater full of people who finished their lasagna half way through the state representative's speech.

Suddenly, I found myself debating me (as I continued to read without breathing) as to whether or not I should stop, take a breath and start again. I do know that at some point before I began to lose consciousness, I stumbled over a word, and I stopped reading the script to say "excuse me". That little pause gave me an excuse to breath and I decided it was time to go off script so I could relax.

I cannot tell you if my little psychotic episode was even noticeable to the people in the audience or the other guys presenting with me. I do know that I never did faint and when the last guy finished speaking, we received the thunderous applause one would expect for such rock stars.

In the end, it was another speaking experience that I can learn from. I don't think I'm ready to deliver the keynote address at a commencement ceremony for graduating 5th graders. When you consider that I spent 15 or 20 years creating this ridiculous fear of public speaking, I think these baby steps are very reasonable.

Got any horror stories of your last big speech to the Rotarian's? Tell me about it or leave a comment here.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

You are always great at the Watch meetings. Who would have thought. I too have that problem.

AlanDP said...

This has never been my biggest fear. I get a little pre-stage jitters but once I'm started everything is more or less fine.

However about 20 years ago, a neighbor of mine who was about 45 yrs old at the time gave a speech for some special occasion where he worked, then walked off the stage and died of a heart attack. No kidding.

Dave said...

gave a speech for some special occasion where he worked, then walked off the stage and died of a heart attack.

Thanks, Alan. That is very comforting!

Maureen said...

Uh, oh, now he not only has to worry about STARTING to talk, but FINISHING, too. Yikes.

I never noticed any of your phobia at the Watch meetings, either. You come across as very confident.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Excellent post. You're so very eloquent. I have suffered major panic attacks before having to speak publicly, too. Even turned down a job when I realized I'd have to do presentations. I turned down a teaching position, too. That little commentary running through your mind? Mine, too. So much that I lose track of what's actually coming out of my mouth. Thanks for sharing.

Lynne said...

The best advice I've ever used: "Fake it 'til you make it!"
Works like a charm. (Thanks, Mom!)

Anonymous said...

"...In fact, I loved the sound of my own voice and used every opportunity to share it with others...."

I guess it runs in the family. My fellow ABMs laugh at me on many ocasions due to me enjoying the sound of my voice as I prepare to speak to pilots. They comment with a "gee, you sure love the sound of your voice over the radio." I reply with a smile, "yessss iiiii doooo."

Dave said...

"gee, you sure love the sound of your voice over the radio."

Yea. Get ready for the sound of "JUDY" when the pilots hear you a little too much.

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San Antonio, TX, United States
I love to observe the odd things happening around me as I go about my day. I especially like it when I can get a picture of people being themselves. Here, I attempt to report the various people and events I have encountered in my neighborhood, and my city. I'd also love to hear from you. Feel free to e-mail your experiences and photos of life in San Antonio.

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