Arthur Dent never got the hang of Thursdays. For me, Saturday is the hardest day of the week. I don’t know why. Last fall I tried going to work on Saturday mornings to make the day seem normal, but even at work I still felt unsettled, shaky, and apprehensive.
One morning last week I woke up with that Saturday feeling, even though it wasn’t Saturday. This time I had a reason to feel unsettled: several weeks earlier I had promised to speak to a group of people that morning. It seemed like a good idea when I made the promise, but somehow that morning I didn’t feel ready. My sudden case of stage fright felt just like an anxiety attack, only one with a cause.
I took speech classes in high school and in college. Working for churches, I have had to stand in front of groups of people and talk. Generally I’m fine in the classroom teaching a group of students. I have no idea why this week’s scheduled session should have seemed different to my inner self.
For between four and five years, I was fortunate enough to work alongside the world’s best communications/public relations professional. When this person asked me to speak to a group of people on behalf of our employer, I wanted to say no, but I allowed myself to be persuaded. (For one thing, this speech gave me a chance to promote a book I had just written.) Figuratively speaking, my co-worker held my hand through the preparation and the presentation, and it went fine. When other speaking opportunities arose, I always turned to my co-worker and always got the assurance and encouragement I needed. Alas, we no longer work for the same company, but this same person still comes to mind when I need to summon the courage to give another speech or presentation.
I drove to work that morning, and the traffic put me in my usual bad mood. I went straight to my desk at work without saying a word to anyone. When the time came, I left to give my presentation. Again, I was shaky and nervous while driving. It didn’t help that gusts of wind were pushing at the car. When I arrived and was greeted, a couple people asked me how I was doing. “I’m trembling in my boots,” I told them honestly. They laughed as if I was joking. The time came, I was introduced, and I began speaking. The first two or three sentences had trouble getting out of my mouth in good order, but after that I was in control of the material, and the remaining fifty minutes flew.
Someone commented to me that day that introverts should not be required to speak in public. Both of us knew that this comment was a joke. Many introverts are quite comfortable in public speaking. Introverts make good teachers, preachers, and lecturers, so long as they are speaking on a subject they know and love. We might be more focused on our material because of our personality, and we are less likely than extraverts to be distracted by the people in front of us. When we are nervous, we have learned to use that energy to keep ourselves interesting as we speak.
The defining mark of an introvert, though, is that we expend energy dealing with other people. We gain energy when we are alone. Truthfully, the half dozen one-on-one conversations I had after my presentation were more draining than the fifty minutes spent speaking to the group, even though the conversations all consisted of positive and complimentary remarks. I’ve watched celebrities walk into a room, attract a crowd, interact enthusiastically with each person in that crowd, and bask in their admiration. I might be able to fake the same response, but from me it’s not genuine. I’d far rather stay home and write and send out my words to speak for me.
In public, introverts are actors. We have to be actors. We must appear calm and confident, even when we are trembling in our boots. I expect that some of the finest actors of stage and screen are secretly introverts, hiding their fears and channeling them into convincing performances. I know this is true of several famous comedians, including Johnny Carson and Robin Williams. Their charm and their energy in front of an audience was compensation for being afraid of other people.
Last week’s presentation was the first of a series of eight talks to the same group. I hope that I won’t be so nervous this week, but I offer no guarantees. More likely than not, I will once again be trembling in my boots. It’s no joke to me, but it will make the other people smile. J.