March 11, 2011

I have glossophobia.

It could be fatal.

Photo: flickr.com | Lissi Elle

This is why I’m a writer…I have no problem putting myself out there for people when I don’t have to stand up in front of them.

The word glossophobia comes from the Greek glōssa, meaning tongue, and phobos, fear or dread.

I’m not alone. In fact, some experts estimate that as much as 75% of the population has some level of public speaking anxiety. It ranks higher in most people’s minds than the fear of death.

In other words, at a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. ~ Jerry Seinfeld

I had recently been asked to speak at SodaStreams’s booth at the International Housewares show—just a 5 to 7 minute thing about inspiring kids to go green. While speaking in front of groups is something I would compare to waterboarding (only worse), I accepted the challenge. The cash carrot they dangled in front of me was not something I could easily refuse—my husband has been unemployed since Dec ’08, and my biz is in the red.

I wrote down what I was going to say, which came naturally. I’m a writer, afterall. Toss in a few visuals, a couple of quotes and I was good to go. Life preserver script in hand.

Throughout the entire process, right up to the last moment before I had to speak, I worked at being present in each moment and not worrying. There wasn’t any clear idea how many people would be there listening. Could be 20. Possibly more. People wandering around other exhibits may drop in at any moment if they felt so inclined.

Susan Sarandon was a speaker at that very booth the day before. No pressure. She’s just a person like the rest of us, I told myself.

The morning of, I did yoga and felt pretty centered. Had the music blasting in the Jeep on my way downtown, unwittingly canceling the effects of Om. I got there early enough to review my notes and tell myself I was going to be fine.

photo: flickr.com

My time had come. I had to climb two steps to the podium. The lights were harsh and unnatural, and boy was it hot! We don’t turn on a lot of lights in my household and I’m never hot—accustomed to hanging around my house with long underwear and an afghan.

I tested the temporary wall behind me for support—hoping I could lean against it instead of relying on my legs to hold me up. But what if the whole wall toppled over—not built to support the weight of a human—killing the product demonstrators on the other side? Did I want to live with that tragedy for the rest of my life for the sake of diminishing my nerves?

The fear-of-public speaking symptoms—which include but are not limited to cotton mouth, shortness of breath, unpredictable trembling, the feeling of impending doom, inability to speak—rushed forth like a tsunami, mocking my efforts to deny their existence.

After a brief introduction that seemed to last forever as I stood up there on display, the mic was turned over to me. A mic I had to hold in my hand. I grabbed it and said, “Thank you so much for having me here today.” And for some unknown reason I added,

“I’ll be here all night.”

Awkwardly, I stumbled into my presentation, the so-called life saver script in one hand, mike in the other. Of course, my hands began to tremble. And there were only about five people in the audience! What’s the big deal, I asked myself. Do five people even qualify as an audience? The more I noticed my trembling hands, the more they trembled. I willed them to stop. They trembled more. The paper (recycled, thank you) could have been hummingbird wings. I’m surprised the mike didn’t become a projectile and hit someone between the eyes.

This panic had happened before. Many times. Any time I had to speak in front of people. I just thought maybe this time would be different.

Apparently, I have the acute version of glossophobia. That means my anxiety only gets worse the further into my presentation I go. And when I’m done? The anxiety accelerates even more!

I was somewhat encouraged by the smiles in the audience. Until I started to wonder if they were genuine. Could they be smiling because they loved the story that somehow found its way off my tongue or because they felt sorry for me? Were they on the edge of their seats, ready to jump up and administer CPR? On the positive, there were no frowning, disapproving smiles. I’ve seen those before.

The moment to escape from the small stage came sooner than I expected, but I didn’t stop talking after I stepped down. I just babbled to anyone who would listen that I was glad that was over and I hate public speaking and blah blah blah. Some sympathized with me, claiming they’re no good at public speaking either.

It wasn’t over. They wanted a quick interview for their streaming YouTube video. Great. If there’s one thing I hate more than public speaking, it’s being on video. Even when it’s with my own family!

I was instructed to go over the highlights of my presentation…and I froze. Doh! What the hell was I to say? The kind young woman behind the small video camera started prompting me. But I was useless.

I had no problem thinking out loud, though, hearing myself say things like “I’m just terrible at this kind of stuff!” and “Now I know why celebs start taking drugs.” and “I really just don’t know what to say–my mind is blank.” and “I really suck at being filmed.” … spewing on and on about my neurosis.

She’d attempt to get me back on track (not that I was ever on one). Was that a white light I saw?

Finally, it was over. Over. They could use that footage to blackmail me one day.

On the drive home, I called and pleaded with them not to put my interview up on YouTube anticipating how horrifying it would be. Here’s how it turned out.

What must have been hours of editing magic gave the illusion that I could actually string more than two words together.

This is why I’m a writer. I can hide. Behind my computer. It’s safe. I have no problem putting myself out there for people when I don’t have to stand up in front of them.  If I ever write a novel, which of course everyone and their brother hopes to do one day, and it becomes a hit, I will be known as the reclusive novelist who rarely, if ever, gives interviews, much less breaks out of her zip code.

Next time—yes, I’m afraid there could be a next time—I will try again.

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