Last month, I joined Toastmasters. This is an international organization with clubs dotted around the world where you learn the ropes of public speaking.
There are objectives, goals, a comprehensive 10-step program and a highly organized system in which to practice, perfect and flourish.
Last week I gave my first speech which is called “The Ice Breaker,” and your objectives are to simply get up there and talk about yourself for four to six minutes. Easy, right?
The most quoted quip at Toastmasters either comes from a Harvard study (I believe it was actually Chapman University) or Jerry Seinfeld, and it goes along the lines of: “People fear public speaking more than death, so just imagine at the next funeral you attend that the guy giving the eulogy would rather be in the coffin.” Cue laughter.
I can’t say I’ve ever given a eulogy, but at my grandmother’s funeral in July I had to say a prayer of the faithful, approximately two sentences and 30 seconds. I got halfway through before the ringing in my ears became so unbearably loud that I had no idea if I was even speaking audibly anymore, and then I began to cry. My whole body felt like it was bursting into flames.
A sea of grieving people sat before me, and the whole thing was so overwhelming. It took me a solid 10 minutes to get my heart to stop racing and for the sweat to stop bucketing from every possible gland.
I wish I could say that it’s because I was so upset by the loss, and of course, that was a hugely contributing factor, but it was mostly fear.
In stark contrast, my father stood up and gave the most beautiful eulogy with no notes whatsoever and reduced the entire congregation to tears with his moving words.
He is an extremely talented orator and highly experienced speaker, and those skills completely overpowered whatever grief, sorrow and pain he was going through at the time. There was no point where I thought that he would rather be dead than up there singing the praises of his beloved mother.
That was when I realized that public speaking doesn’t have to be a fear, and it certainly does not have to be worse than death – because it isn’t. So when the opportunity arose to join Toastmasters I took it straight away.
Thankfully, talking about myself is a key social crutch to fall back on. Give me any awkward situation, any dinner party or family gathering and I will jam-pack it with useless information about myself, anecdotes that go on forever, stories that never end– anything to fill the silence. So I decided to start from the beginning.
The first thing I had to address was the fact that I’m from Co. Waterford but I don’t have an accent. Truth be told, I did once have an accent and it was very, definitely a Waterford accent. There’s even video footage to prove it: me on my third birthday sitting on the living room floor in a sea of Crayola utensils, creating a huge mess and nattering away to my dad about “me markers, me crayons, me paper.”
My mom is from Waterford and her accent was in no way as strong as that (which is difficult to convey phonetically), and my dad had grown up in London so this simply wouldn’t do! I was swiftly put into elocution lessons where I remained until I was 18.
As a result of this, I developed a theatrical flair at a pretty early age. I played Mary in the school nativity when I was four and again at six which is any convent-going school girl’s dream, and I maintain that I gave memorable performances each time!
I quickly became one of those really annoying children who has 500 hobbies and my mother quickly became my chauffeur, ferrying me from one extra-curricular class to another. I was in ballets, musicals, recitals – the works. I loved being on stage. I loved the costumes, the music, the lights and the attention.
So why the nerves now?
My theory is that college ruined me. In the first few weeks I auditioned repeatedly for the drama society but quickly realized that I was a teeny tiny fish in a massive talented pond.
The only thing I was cast in was a fresher’s co-op production with 59 other newbies for six weeks of aggressive “improv” which I loathed with every fibre of my being. Every night for 2 hours we would have to take turns improvising and being funny which for me was hell on earth. I was used to lines, rehearsing, harmonies and schedules!
Having to think on my feet and clearly failing -- no one ever laughed -- did wonders for my confidence. At the end of the six weeks, we were cast in a show based on how well we’d done.
I was cast as a seal and my only line was “ARF.” I made the executive decision that I was rubbish on stage and moved behind the scenes.
Once I started writing and directing, I couldn’t believe I had ever enjoyed acting. Perhaps as a teenager we’re all less self-aware and much more self-confident. Perhaps as we get older we become more fearful across the board.
Bottom line is, the thought of performing became a literal nightmare. It has since become a recurring nightmare where someone is pushing me out on stage as the curtain goes up and I’m the lead in a musical that I’ve never even heard of.
So after of all my training, my actual medals in elocution and countless hours spent on stage, I have learned that there is a great difference between stage fright and podium fright.
Up there, I have no other writer to blame if it sounds terrible. I have no lights to blind me from the audience’s gaze. I have no costumes, sets and soundtracks to shield me from the real world.
It’s me, alone, speaking the words I have written to a group of people who know I’m not playing a part, I’m just playing me. Nothing about this is fiction, it is reality.
And it’s not like writing a column like this where I get to write drafts and edit drafts and hide behind the safety of a computer screen. It is raw, personal exposure and that is what is so completely terrifying. This is the fear that must be overcome.
As my new club’s motto goes: “Onwards and Upwards.” Watch this space – I could become an annoying vlogger all too soon.