You want to make three-quarters of the people in the world shit a brick? Tell them they have to speak in public.
Then sit back and watch the blood leave their face. A common fear, that. And, for a lot of people, a pretty serious one.
And don’t get me started on the usual advice. Picture everyone naked? How the hell is that supposed to help? Take a representative sample of the population, and tell me how many of them you’d want watching you in the buff as you read something at a podium. Your eyes would be magnetically drawn to their junk. It’s true and you know it. And then they reach down to scratch—
You know what, I’m going to stop this right here. Brain bleach will be available at the end of the post.
This came up in writer’s group the other night. We talked about what a common fear it was, especially as it relates to reading your own stuff, which is what we were doing. And we talked about how necessary it is, especially for writers.
Other people might be able to avoid doing public speaking or reading. But writers…you don’t get that luxury*. And you shouldn’t. Reading aloud is great for writing. You ever get stuck on a word? I do. Lately for me it’s been ‘glanced’. Characters were always glancing at things. You never notice how much you overuse a word faster than if you read it out loud twenty fucking times in a page. Reading aloud also helps your dialogue. And all kinds of other things. But the fear is still there.
And it’s bullshit.
This is just your brain being an ass. “You can’t do this. You’ll screw it up. And then everyone will know that you’re a fake!”
Fucker. But it’s hard to ignore that voice. You figure that once you screw up, it’s over.
Speaking from personal experience, I have screwed up almost every possible way there is to screw up while speaking in public, short of actually vomiting in front of people. (I’m saving that for a special occasion.) I’ve stuttered, stumbled, mispronounced, misquoted, and mis-attributed. And that’s only the start. I’ve tripped on my way to the podium. I’ve accidentally cursed while giving seminars, both as a student and as a teacher. I’ve cursed reading in church (Grandfather’s funeral. I like to think he would have been amused.). I’ve lost my place and stood there in dumbfounded silence (wedding vows, no less. And I was reading off a damn sheet!). I’ve flashed my damn underwear to an auditorium (high school play with togas. Should have seen it coming.).
Was I embarrassed? Sure.** But at no point did I die of it, and no one—absolutely no one—gave me shit about it. Yeah, I got a few cracks about the underwear thing, but that’s it. And it wasn’t the end.
And that’s the big secret. Once you do it, it’s not that bad. If you read in public enough times, the law of averages says you’ll screw up at least once. Probably more. But if you’re going to let a fear of screwing up stop you, you’ll never do anything.
Doesn’t mean you can’t prepare, of course. Try reading your stuff out loud to yourself first. Or your cat. Once you feel good about that, move on to a friend or significant other. Someone who is guaranteed not to be a dick about it. And then maybe a small group of friends, like our writer’s group. Small exposure to build resistance to the crushing Red Virus of Embarrassment. If you still feel awkward, try a group like Toastmasters. Some people I know have done their program, and they say it helped a lot. Practice is the key here. Practice, and forgiving yourself for your occasional mistakes. Because everyone screws up. I’m proof enough of that. You screw up, and then you keep going.
And if that fails, try the naked thing. At least the resulting brain aneurism will be a quick death.
*If it is a luxury. I think avoiding it just makes it worse.
**Except for the wedding (it’s my damn party, I’ll take as long as I want) and the funeral (I was more worried about spontaneously catching fire.).