Public speaking can be one of life’s most feared challenges – until you are doing it. Once The Moment arrives, the speaker might still tremble within, but the performance can feel as smooth as gliding through water.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that public speaking is one of the most feared, nay, dreaded human activities for so many of us. Particularly for we introverts.
I have had this fear for much of my life. In all honesty, I still feel it to this day. I managed to spend a lot of my life out of the spotlight of public speaking. All that changed in 2010, when I had to give my first ever presentation to an audience. I can well remember the awful anxiety leading up to this occasion. But moments into my session starting, the anxiety was replaced by this other, new feeling. As if something else took over.
Public speaking has been a regular occurrence for me ever since. The fear has lessened somewhat with experience. But it is still there, and can return with great intensity. I can feel degrees of anxiety, ranging from mild worry to terror at various points over the moments, minutes, hours, weeks, days and months leading up to it.
Yet once I start to speak, it is a different matter. Something changes. I will in all probability never be a good public speaker. But I can at least always seem to find the right words when I most need them.
Why is there such a sharp and decisive dividing line between the build-up (with all its anxious anticipation) and the actual doing? Where exactly does this dividing line come? What are you tapping into when this other feeling takes the lead?
A held breath
My good friend Sean Jones describes that dividing line perfectly in a pair of tweets from earlier this month about what he terms “the Moment”:
“For advocates there is a moment (“the Moment”), a held breath, between the worry that you may have missed something in prep; that you don’t truly understand the arguments; that your brain simply may not work and the relief as those first words of the submissions begin to flow.”
“The Moment clears the mind of the buzz of worry and focuses you. From there it’s not auto-pilot but there is a bit of you that feels like an observer; that wonders where this is coming from and whether that well ever runs dry.”
I love Sean’s point about the part of you that feels like an observer. Something else takes over. Musicians and actors often speak of having no recollection of the performance they have just delivered onstage, of their time in the spotlight feeling as though it both passed in an instant and lasted an eternity.
Why can’t life always be like this? Why can’t we always be in this flow state?
It is a peculiarity of The Moment that it does what moments tend to do. It passes, often erasing all memory of itself and carefully picking up the trail of breadcrumbs that might lead you back to it.
Can we do anything to prepare for The Moment, or to make it more likely to happen?
Susan Cain: Natural born killer?
“Rumour has it that straight in the delivery room, from the get-go, you were a natural born killer on stage. Is this true? Were you born a spectacular public speaker?”
This is Tim Ferriss’s knowing opening gambit in his outstanding 2019 podcast conversation with Susan Cain (introvert, author of two wonderful books on introversion – Quiet and Quiet Revolution, and creator of a hugely successful TED Talk on the power of introverts*).
“Of course, the answer is the complete opposite,” Cain responds, laughing. She talks of her “almost lifelong fear of public speaking”. This fear consumed her from her schooldays. In adulthood, she forced herself to overcome it, so that she could share and communicate the insights she attained while working on Quiet.
Through practice, repetition and determination, Susan Cain incrementally built her ability to express her ideas compellingly and in public (each step in this process is beautifully described in the podcast).
Today, Cain is recognised as an excellent public speaker. A warm, wise voice. A natural, if you will. I love how Ferriss and Cain discuss this perception of her mastery as a speaker:
Tim Ferriss: “When people see the finished product, it’s easy to assume that it comes from an attribute, rather than a skill. A lot of what appears to be natural only appears to be natural as it started off very unnatural.”
Susan Cain: “So often when you see someone who’s really good at almost anything, it’s because they started out exactly the opposite, and then they cared so much about fixing that problem.”
The Moment is finite
The Moment is when the thing that has long preyed on your mind finally happens.
Once The Moment arrives, the speaker might still tremble within, but the performance seems as smooth as gliding through water.
The world that The Moment shows you might feel infinite. But it is nothing but finite. Moments, by their very nature, can’t help but pass.
Until you reach that dividing line, that held breath that separates the anticipation from The Moment, try to be as kind to yourself as you can be.
May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.
* Here is Susan Cain’s TED Talk on The power of introverts.
- DandelionDandelion via Wikimedia Commons.
- Susan Cain via Wikimedia Commons.
- Dew on dandelion via Wikimedia Commons.
- Theatervoorstelling Versailles via Wikimedia Commons.