Saturday, 18 March 2023

Face your fears - by Lu Hersey

 When I watch other writers speaking confidently in front of audiences, I feel a mix of total admiration and massive envy. How do they do it? What magical skill helps them not stutter and freeze in front of the crowd and how come they NEVER balls up their presentations? Why is it my powerpoints can randomly jump to some picture of my cat watching TV, or make the school internet crash completely?

Yes, I've done a few events where everything's worked properly, and I've even remembered to breathe. But the truth is I suffer from glossophobia - a fear of public speaking. It's paralysing. The moment everyone's attention is turned on me, I feel sick, my mouth goes dry, and my mind is a completely blank space. Not zen empty, just blank. 

I'm also more than capable of sabotaging myself. I realised this many, many years ago, at a writing diploma award ceremony. Everyone had to read out a piece of their work in front of the collected students, friends and families. I was going to read the spooky start of a ghost story I'd written, which I'd practised reading aloud in front of a mirror, over and over again. But as I started reading aloud on the stage, I realised the printout I was holding was a totally different piece from the one I'd practised. HOW DID IT EVEN GET THERE? 

Turning a whiter shade of pale, I fumbled with the paper like Boris when he ended up talking about Pepper Pig. I had no choice but to keep going with what I had in front of me - a piece from the autobiography module about trying to hide a plantation of cannabis plants from my parents, and stopping a very unpredictable housemate from dropping acid in their tea while they were visiting. Totally unsuitable for the occasion.  I'd meant to make my audience's spines tingle, but instead everyone laughed. (Fortunately it was meant to be funny.) It took me DAYS to recover. Even now, I cringe when I think about it.

The problem is, as a writer, you HAVE to be able to talk to audiences. It's how you promote your work. We're expected to entertain people in real life, not just in books. 

The basic advice given to us glossophobia sufferers is embrace the fear and do it anyway - but that, as I know all too well, is easier said than done. Very gradually, with a lot of practice, I've got slightly more used to it. These days I manage to talk to a hall full of people without needing a week lying down in a darkened room afterwards to recover - but it's taken me a good while to get here.  

If you're a fellow glossophobia sufferer, here are some ideas that might (or might not) help you get through:

1. A popular method is to imagine everyone in your audience is stark bollock naked. To be honest, this doesn't really work for me. The audience are still staring at me, waiting for me to say something, and none of them seem to care that they aren't wearing any clothes. However it might work for you, so give it a go.

2. Lucky charms. I go for overkill with this. A recent spring clean of my laptop bag produced three hagstones, a bag of runes, a Cornish Piskie, a hand of Fatima, a corn dolly and a horseshoe. If it helps, go for it. Wear your lucky pants, your grandma's moth-eaten scarf - anything that makes you feel better. It won't make the school wifi work, but it might help you breathe.

3. Think of that old adage, What's The Worst That Can Happen? This is quite a good one to remember - try it. Go through every worst case scenario you can think of in your head, and probably what actually happens won't be quite as bad, so long as you're still alive at the end. If you're dead, it really wasn't helpful, but at least you won't care.

4. Try asking the audience questions. Get them to talk for a bit while you breathe. The problem is you have to listen to them while you're breathing, otherwise you have absolutely no idea what they just said and you'll lose your thread. But the principle is sound - people often like taking part, so long as you don't pick on them, and it helps engage the audience. (At the very least, it helps the time to pass more quickly.)

5. Planning. This really does help. A lot of planning. And have far more material available than you think you're going to need.  I take props everywhere too, because of my almost magical ability to manifest a total, inexplicable technology fail. If I have a bag full of objects relevant to the book, at least I can wave those at the audience instead. And print-outs of images. They're good too. (It also takes a while to hand them around, which takes another few seconds off your time slot.)

6. Smile a lot. If you look friendly, the audience might be more kindly disposed towards you. (Probably advisable to try this out in front of a mirror first. You don't want to grin like a psycho, especially not on a school visit.)

You might never get totally used to public speaking, but it does get easier over time. It's a bit like arachnophobia (I have that too). If you have to deal with a lot of spiders, eventually escorting them outside (with the help of a large glass and some stiff card, obvs) gets easier. You can even learn a bit of respect for them and lose a little of the fear. 

Finally, here's a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt to help you onto that stage:

"You gain strength , courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, I have lived through this horror, I can take the next thing that comes along. You must do the thing you think you cannot do."

You never know. You might even get good at it.

Lu Hersey

Twitter: LuWrites


Jenny Alexander said...

I bet you're brilliant at it, Lu. Feel the fear and do it anyway - Susan Jeffers' book was a game-changer for me - and she once gave me a great cover quote. But I've found my personal limit with the enormous spider that has been living behind one of the pictures on my study wall for many years, getting bigger. I glimpse him venturing out after dark sometimes, feel the fear and hurry away

Sue Purkiss said...

This rings a lot of bells - though for me, the anxiety is all before the event: once I'm there, it's fine and I even enjoy it. (Though assemblies are a step too far!) But the pre-event anxiety is awful, and starts long before the actual thing. I haven't found anything that really helps (except, as you say, preparing more than you need). Have tried rescue remedy, tapping, all sorts, and none of them work. I do find, once the day comes, I feel a sense of relief, because it'll soon be over! And I do enjoy it once there. Think also, as you say, it's good to leave plenty of time for questions - I think often that's when you and the audience really engage, and it all comes alive.

Nicky said...

I once heard a Radio 4 thing about stage fright and taking time at the start of a 'performance' to breathe the room. You send your breath to the furthest corners and it seems to work a bit like dogs peeing on lamp posts - the space becomes your own territory. It helps a bit. Great blog. (btw I wouldn't use those pics, brilliant and salient as they are, as they probably infringe copyright and you might get some nasty letters from lawyers)

LuWrites said...

Thanks everyone - love the idea of breathing the room! And yes, maybe I'd better change the pics in case they infringe copyright...