Here are two public speaking observations that still surprise me:
1. That my first 5 minutes facilitating a workshop unnerve me as much today as they did 35 years ago.
2. That the following refrain from workshop participants continues to be so recurrent, generic and ever-present – it goes something like this: “One of my takeaways is realizing that even though I felt so nervous, scared and insecure, the feedback I got was that I didn’t appear nearly as undone as I felt.”
Scott Stossel in his book, My Age of Anxiety speaks poetically to this inner /outer dissonance. A successful writer and editor for the The Atlantic magazine, Stossel’s book (his stories are excruciating) details a lifetime of suffering and the many and myriad treatments and medications he has tested and required for his debilitating anxiety.
He writes, “I am, as they say in the clinical literature, “high functioning” for someone with an anxiety disorder or mental illness; I’m usually quite good at hiding it. More than a few people, some of whom think they know me quite well, have remarked that they are struck that I, who can seem so even-keeled and imperturbable, would choose to write a book about anxiety. I smile gently while churning inside and think about what I’ve learned – it is the signature characteristic of a phobic personality; ‘the need and ability to present a relatively placid, untroubled appearance to others while suffering extreme distress on the inside.’ ”
Stossel inhabits an extreme version of a world most of us experience for moments, hours, days and possibly weeks at a time. He relates experiences from freezing during public speaking engagements to running off the stage during a lecture. And these were the easier stories to digest. To read his experience is heart constricting and a confirmation that no one should have to suffer such unpredictable and debilitating angst.
And yet, his outer “imperturbable” façade fooled so many people. How then do we as speakers resolve this fundamental tension between our internal landscape and our external presence? And how can we bridge the gulf between what is happening in our minds and bodies and what is manifesting externally? How can we know what is real?
Here are 5 steps to consider
Join The Crowd The National Institute for Mental Health states that 74% of people suffer from speech anxiety. That’s 3 out of 4, or practically everyone in the room.
Say It Out Loud Silencing anxiety often fuels the internal dialogue. Find someone you trust and share the truth.
Get Support Instead of avoiding public speaking, invest in coaching, join Toastmasters, participate in a public speaking workshop. And, possibly, speak with your doctor. Nerves and heightened anticipation to fuel performance are one thing, suffering is another altogether.
Make it Scalable Start with manageable and specific goals that you can attain. Build your practice just like a workout routine. Meet yourself where you are.
Get REAL Feedback Getting out of our head and the distortions that can exist there is a relief. Specific, constructive, clear mirroring of what is being projected is to be present with concrete choices to get to the next, more comfortable, and honest level.
Oh, and get comfortable with being uncomfortable! When I finish Stossel’s book, I will share all relevant learning in my next post.
See you up there.