A Scary Situation I Faced and Then Had to Pick Up the Pieces
For those that have followed my journey and read some past blogs or Facebook posts, you know I have huge anxiety around public speaking.
Some can be attributed to my introversion (though many introverts are great public speakers), some to my shyness (very different from Introversion), and some roots back to my elementary school flubbing of a speech on Johann Gutenberg (inventor of the printing press).
Tackling My Fear Head-on
Fast forward to this past summer when an opportunity arose to participate in a local bookfair. In addition to some well-known authors that fly in, they have a Local Literati section and invite local authors to present their book for two minutes each - sort of like speed shopping at Barnes & Noble.
Determined to share my book and message with many and my confidence bolstered by dozens of podcast appearances, I accepted the invitation. I was excited about the growth opportunity while recognizing a tinge of nervousness that suddenly implanted itself in my stomach.
While I've done countless business presentations as a 30-year vet of corporate America, even this 2-minute schpiel was going to be different. I wouldn't have notes or a slideshow and would, in fact, be memorizing my speech with a rigid cutoff time.
Preparation & Mindset are the Keys
So like many good introverts, I prepared! I wrote my 2-minute speech in September. I began reading it three times a day in October, four weeks before the book fair. I practiced in my office, while out for a walk, in the shower, on the back porch... every day. And in the past week or so I dropped my written speech and rehearsed from memory. I felt like I finally had it down.
Then I focused on mindset through positive self-talk:
I can do this
I know my stuff
Aim for impactful, not perfection
The audience wants to hear my message
Take a deep breath, go slow
Dip my toe in and enjoy the ripples
Finally, the day arrived. I did feel a bit nervous, but well prepared and excited to share my message...and certainly ready to be done.
I was fourth on the list. The lady before me finished and I was introduced. I walked on stage, shook hands with the host (who incorrectly referenced my website (Beyond Introversion) instead of my book title (The Corporate Introvert), and began.
"Good morning. I'm Steve Friedman, author of The Corporate Introvert." I pointed to the big screen behind me with my book cover and correct title. "Thanks to the ERJCC for inviting me to the book fair."
I smoothly transitioned into the next sentence while glancing around the dark theatre and occasional searchlights beaming into my eyes. "Wait a minute. Aren't introverts supposed to be loners, shy, and anti-social? Well, I'm an introvert. What am I doing up here? I believe!" I felt good. I felt relaxed, was using hand gestures, and scanning the room. But then...it happened!
Blackout on Stage!
My mind went blank and I went on auto-pilot. I wasn't thinking of what to say, it just dribbled out of my mouth. I had practiced about 75 times (really!) and so it just rolled out. It was a bit surreal. Sort of an out-of-body experience. I believe I worked through my tree analogy and then...I stumbled. I lost my place. Someone turned off my auto-pilot! Suddenly the auto-pilot wasn't working anymore. What was next?
Somehow, I recall ad-libbing a wandering yet somewhat coherent sentence while I freaked out inside. I remember asking myself, "am I stuck? Dare I unfold the typed speech on the podium and try to find my place?" I knew I couldn't just ad-lib the rest of my time. I really couldn't recall where I was! Panic was setting in. I thought, perhaps I need to fess up and tell the audience I'm stuck?!! All this happened in about ten seconds while I was actually ad-libbing some other words. And then, somehow, I picked up where I was supposed to be. I continued on, a bit rattled but back into this semi-conscious auto-pilot state. Finally, I was able to finish my two minutes (and 10 seconds) of fame. (You'll find my 10 seconds of wandering around the 3:00.00 mark of the video)
I smiled, shook the host's hand, and took my seat on the front row.
I put my COVID mask back on and began to decipher what just happened.
Earlier in the week, I'd told myself to practice self-compassion no matter how the speech went. Impactfulness, not perfection! So I celebrated that I was done, that I believe I covered everything, and that perhaps my foible went unnoticed.
But naturally, my mind moved to "what the hell happened?" I don't even remember talking. I knew I got lost once but I don't even remember where. All that practice and I just blacked out. Why? I was ready. Was I too ready? Was the anxiety and buildup for months just too much? Did I get thrown off by the crowd or the lights?
I'd blacked out before - after too many shots or too much saki as my way of trying to cope with the pressures of working in a very extroverted corporate culture for years. But never like this. Why? Was it a chemical imbalance issue in my brain...adrenalin or something?
Comforted by the recognition it was indeed over and that I believed I'd covered all my points, and that it could have been much worse (and nearly was), I continued to decipher.
When the last speaker finished, I met my wife outside the theatre. Always my greatest cheerleader, she gave me a big smile, a warm hug, and a hearty congratulations. I asked if she could tell I got stuck and she said it was great. But I knew she knew. She'd heard it too many times to know I had gotten stuck. I wondered if my face showed my panic - like deer in headlights.
Live & Learn
Later, on the drive home I picked myself up and thought to myself, I have one of two paths, either swear off public speaking and avoid risking a repeat, or live and learn.
I'm not a quitter so I started forming steps to move forward. Perhaps I need to work smarter, not harder:
See the video: not as bad as my introspective mind had conjured up. My umms and ahhs picked up as I lost control. Check out the video...you be the judge.
Less preparation: while I embrace my introversion and my greatest strength of preparation throughout my day, perhaps I over-prepared. I shouldn't need to practice for a month and then blackout. The practice probably saved me with auto-pilot but it didn't prevent the blackout.
Gather perspective: I happen to have my therapy appointment this week so we had a good discussion. She applauded my balanced approach and my leaning in into self-compassion. She presented a third option - try again and see if it gets easier and more enjoyable. She offered that it is okay to define boundaries and that might mean striking off public speaking. We don't always have to push ourselves, especially if misery and anxiety come along with it. We are not "quitters" when we stretch our comfort zone and then define our limitations through experience. This definitely resonated with me. Heck, I even wrote a post on it last year!
More public speaking: Toastmasters is designed to give people like me a safe place to practice my speaking skills. Toastmasters scares me to death, but I expect the people are very supportive and it will be just what I need to reduce my apprehensions and test my boundaries and limitations.
Consider other formats: There are many kinds of public speaking to get my message out - podcasts, Q&A forums, reading off a speech (which 8 of the 11 actually did - I just chose the extreme instead of a more moderate and supportive path), or topical discussions without memorization. Canned speeches memorized and under strict time control are the worst. The memorization is likely what disconnected me from myself, and perhaps the audience too. So I can also adjust my speeches and the ones I choose to do to a style I'm most comfortable with.
Why Is It So Important?
It may sound corny to some, but this is a passion project for me. I struggled for years before uncovering a path to lead with authenticity and confidence. I want to help others believe and accelerate their own journey. So I choose to learn and grow through this experience.
Why Do I Share My Fears?
Upon further reflection, I don't think my fear of public speaking is necessarily an introvert thing. As I mentioned, many introverts love to share their knowledge with an engaged audience. I do, however, think my preparation and post-analysis of the situation are very characteristic of introverts. I consider my prep and review as core strengths of mine (and most introverts per our Strengths Quiz). I continue to learn how to temper each, however, so I don't over-prepare myself into auto-pilot or tear myself up in deciphering my shortcomings. I've reminded myself of the cornerstones of moderation and stretching with boundaries. Now I think I've assessed the situation in a well =-balanced way and have a plan of attack.
I wanted to share my two minutes of fame but more importantly the journey inside my mind because I think vulnerability takes courage. I'm trying to confront my fears these days and also to share my own fears and reconciliation process. Many introverts feel alone but there are so many of us tackling similar challenges. If we lean on our strengths, we can overcome even the biggest obstacles and be better for it. So I share in the hope others can relate and join me in living and learning...and moving forward.
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