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I remember one occasion years ago. I’m involved in a charity and we decide to hold an event at my house.
There’s a guest speaker and all I have to do is introduce him. The living room’s packed and it feels hot, intimate, intense. People are stuffed like sardines on the sofa; armchairs and kitchen chairs are all occupied and everyone feels too close. Maybe this adds to my nerves, I’m not sure.
When I step forward, my knees tremble and my palms sweat. My heart beats faster and faster and as I speak I become breathless and rush my words. My voice gets strangled in my throat till eventually I run out of voice altogether. A hot blush steadily rises in my cheeks and as I struggle on, I catch the eye of a friend. His gaze is so sympathetic it almost feels worse like I’m in particular need of help or rescue or something equally humiliating.
I get through and I sit down in a daze and the relaxed, competent guest speaker smoothly takes over and I recover somehow. Sound familiar?
Like me, perhaps you actually like public speaking, in fact you think you’re quite good at it. You may even like being the centre of attention but for some infuriating reason you get so nervous that your body literally lets you down and makes sure you do a rubbish job. You think if only you could control your nerves, getting up to speak in public would be a pleasure. You’d be relaxed, speak persuasively, intimately. You’d have a nice, chatty style. You’d be yourself, only more so. It would be just like speaking to a few friends at the pub or round your kitchen table. You’d slow down and be able to connect brain to vocal chords. You might even tell the odd joke. You’d be in control and it would all be so easy.
I know that’s what I used to think – that my body was the enemy. And not just when I spoke in public. But at other times too – in meetings or negotiations. Especially in the workplace. Wherever I wanted to look competent and in control. Then my body betrayed my anxiety and my fear. And I worried that others would notice and then they’d know I was nervous or frightened.
So it’s ok to feel nervous or frightened – is it just not ok to show it?
It’s another occasion much more recent and I’m taking part in a Ginger training day and I’m enjoying it and I’m fine – except as I sit there on my chair waiting to go on, my heart’s doing that old familiar thing which is beating much too hard and fast. I get up to speak and yes, my knees are shaking.
I pause and study the expression on their faces. They don’t look shocked or hostile and they don’t look sympathetic either. What they look is interested. And I realise that unbelievably my knees have stopped shaking and my heartbeat has slowed right down. I give my talk and I don’t feel nervous. I just give my talk. And that’s how I combated my nerves. By naming what I feel, by acknowledging the tumult in my body. By instead of trying to cover up what was going on for me, simply accepting and acknowledging my natural human responses without judgement or shame.
It’s logical and normal to feel scared when you’re in the spotlight and all eyes are on you. It’s a primitive response harking back to ancient times when finding yourself stranded in alien territory surrounded by enemies meant your body’s early warning system alerted you to danger and told you to run, freeze or fight.
None of those responses are helpful when we speak in public. But the physical manifestation of public speaking nerves is a powerful, wonderful reminder that we’re stepping out of our comfort zone and doing something big. We can thank our bodies for reminding us of that amazing fact. We can channel those nerves in to boldness and bravery. We can take pride in stepping forward and being seen even though it feels scary. And we do this not only for ourselves but for all those others who long to stand up and be seen yet who feel shame that in so doing others may see their fear.
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