Dealing with public speaking panic attacks

There are people who can talk and talk and talk. You know who I’m talking about. They have opinions on pretty much everything and can relay facts and anecdotes on any topic. And they like to share it all. 

Then there are people who write prolifically. It’s their main medium of communication. Ask them to talk and they clam up. If they haven’t written it yet, they don’t know what to say. I’m kind of like that. 

On the other end of the writing spectrum, there are people who tweet. The best at this medium are witty and smart, able to distill paragraphs down to 280 characters. The worst of them are mean and controversial. Oddly, there’s not much intersection between these two groups of writers: bloggers don’t tweet (is Tim Ferriss even on Twitter?) and tweeters don’t blog (can you imagine if Donald Trump blogged?)

Public speaking is one area where these forms of communication all converge. That’s why it’s so hard; great public speakers and speech writers are rare. I think a good speech is written as a series of tweets. It’s a special form of blog writing that is snappy, clever, and packs a big punch on a small page. I think public speaking is not so much about the delivery — yes, that’s important — but a really truly great speech can deliver itself. If it’s written to be spoken, written for the audience, then the person giving the speech simply needs to get out of the way. 

In other words, let the speech do the talking. Spend all the time and energy on getting the speech right and the rest will fall into place. 

Yesterday I gave this speech at Diablo Valley College. I don’t claim that it held up to the ideal I just described. It’s long. It’s not very “tweet-able.” Parts of it are pretty dense. However, it did do a good job of telling stories, stopping to reiterate the notable points, and providing a few light moments to laugh at. 

I got laughs. I got stares. I also got snores. But I got through it, and I think I for the most part got out of the speech’s way.

This event had one particular challenge that I wasn’t prepared for: there was no podium.

I arrived 30 minutes early and chatted with the organizers a bit. There were already people in their seats, and I learned that an entire class from a local high school was required to attend my talk. It was going to be a full house. 

I printed the speech on double-spaced pages. It was 17 sheets long, double-sided, so a hefty stack to have to hold in my hand while speaking. During a lull in the conversation, I turned around to google “how to give speech with no podium.” The top results were a bit alarming: effectively they said, “Don’t do it.” 

They said the tendency will be look down, straight down, and lose your connection with your audience. With a podium, at least you can look slightly down. The other concern was the involuntary shaking a lot of people get when they speak publicly. A small tremor in your hand will get amplified by a sheet of paper, distracting everyone. 

I wasn’t sure what to do about this, so I decided to do nothing. I went up, stack of sheets in hand, and started talking. I knew most of the content without needing to read it and instead used the pages as a guide, looking down only a couple of times per page. For the most part, the speech did the talking. I tried to talk loud and slowly, letting the speech rest sometimes, and keeping eye contact with my audience, which I’d estimate was around 50 people. 

Public speaking has definitely not been my forte. Often in the seconds leading up to a speaking event, I get small panic attacks. My mouth dries up, the lump in my throat starts as a seed and quickly grows into a grapefruit. My jaw locks shut. I begin to regret. I want to turn around, give up, not speak. It’s a terrible way to go into a public speaking opportunity. I know that it’s going to happen and I dread it.

Other times I’ve started out fine and I’ll get to a point in the speech where my brain goes numb. The panic then sets in. I feel the audience’s stares like daggers at my gut. I know this feeling well. My breathing gets fast and short, my mouth dries out, and I feel scared, vulnerable, and desperate. This happened one time at a pitch competition at MIT and I walked off the stage. I didn’t even finish. I went outside and cried. It happened another time at a content marketing conference. I spoke at a session with slides behind me and midway through I felt that I’d lost the audience. I thought they hated me and my talk and then the panic set in. I pushed through it but I still remember my desperation up on that stage. I’m sure the audience noticed. 

So going back to yesterday, I felt fine leading up to the talk. I was confident. In the seconds leading up to my grand entrance, as the DVC business professor read my bio, saying what an “honor and a privilege” it was to have me there, I wanted to run up and talk. I was excited to do it. I’m not sure what the difference was about yesterday, but I was pretty pumped up. 

I got up there and broke the ice (and referenced the Harvard degree they mentioned in my bio) with a joke about how my in-laws probably reacted to their daughter quitting her job and moving across the country to be with her boyfriend (punchline: they shrugged it off since he went to Harvard.) And then I dove into the speech. I felt vulnerable but I didn’t feel any daggers. A majority of the audience stayed engaged. When I looked at them, they looked back. 

I played the other speech-giving game of choosing one person in the back row to speak to. I picked a kind-looking young girl with a black and white striped shirt to be the focus of my performance. At one point she got up and left. I panicked for a second and went on. Fortunately she came back. It must have been a bathroom break. 

At the end of the speech I had a line of students, young and adult, wanting to engage and ask questions. I’m not used to that — it was very welcomed. I stayed and talked to all of them and then went home, tired and happy, ready to put my girls to bed and drink a glass of wine. Which I did. 

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