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Just about every time I visit family, a few of us end up at the local veteran’s bar.
Queuing up the karaoke, we’re intent on entertaining the retired patrons with our alternative version of Stevie Nicks, George Strait, Bob Dylan, or any other familiar ditty that deserves a far more talented tribute.
It’s mostly hilarious, usually whiskey-infused, and has become an unavoidable pastime whenever I visit my relatives. Under the karaoke disco lights, I’m unfazed. I don’t usually shy away from the mic, and tend to ham it up and engage with the audience as if they were all my people. Most of them are upwards of 70, and I hope I’m not confusing protests from voices too feeble to be heard with joyful acceptance.
Presenting a topic I’m passionate about and have prepared for in front of an audience who definitely are my people with the same confidence I carry in a karaoke bar—this feels like a hurdle I’ve never been successful in clearing.
Suffering from stage fright is not something I readily accept. I love telling my stories. I aim for them to connect, every ripple landing in positive, impactful ways.
But still, stage fright descends every time I take the stage alone as I did a couple of months ago at the 10th Anniversary of the Hero Round Table. I rehearse, but once I’m mic’d up and introduced, I feel derailed every time.
To prepare, I researched tips on how to be a good speaker. I pay attention to the rules of creating effective slides that interest the audience, and how to best posture myself on stage. I work with coaches to check the flow of my narrative. In the past, I have even recorded myself reading my speech and playing it back over and over through my headphones so that I can memorize every carefully scripted word (just like we do with our favorite songs).
I realize that if I have time to worry, I will. My allotted time slot approaches, and I panic.
The first year I spoke with HRT, I was so nervous that I was sure a glass of wine would take the edge off. I walked into the Green Room with a bottle of red and a bottle of white and set them on the table announcing to the other practicing speakers, “Anyone else need a little courage in a cup?”
A tall, handsome African American man donning a suit (who was a former cop) turned his broad shoulders toward me and in a deep voice said, “I’ll take a glass.” That comforted my anxious state, and I calmed a little as we cheered our plastic cups. Nerves jittery, I headed out under the bright lights, encouraged by backstage hugs, and delivered my well-rehearsed talk.
In the second year, I decided to lean into my stores of self-confidence rather than into a red blend. Weeks before the event, I diligently practiced every line of my talk, aiming for a perfect performance. The backstage hugs helped, but the backstage pacing seemed more panic-inducing than calming this time.
After delivering my speech, I promptly walked off stage and, even though applause still fluttered up from seats, I burst into tears having screwed up a line that no one noticed but me. Kindness from other speakers helped pull me off the floor, but man. The pressure from my critical self was real and my nerves were shot to pieces.
This year, noting that my talk was in the morning, I thought a bubbly pink brut was called for rather than my usual red. I also decided to ditch the script and relieve myself of the pressure of memorizing my speech word for word. Instead, I would focus on three main points I knew I could drive home. The sequence of engaging photos in my slides would endear the audience to the story and guide my delivery. Plus a little morning bubbly would help loosen me up.
For some reason, this year felt worse than ever. As I began introducing my talk, I could feel my voice breaking apart. The tremor in my words jumbled out of my mouth and spilled on the floor like a dropped plate of scrambled eggs. My throat tightened and I could sense tears rising.
Have you ever seen a movie where train tracks shoot out over an abyss, ushering a speeding runaway train toward devastating tragedy? As the train becomes airborne, the train cars break away from each other and bolts disintegrate into nothing. Smoke whips from the smokestack, brakes screech, and the engines roar as the train hurtles itself over the open space of a canyon and falls to pieces into the depths below—does this scene sound familiar?
This is how I felt my talk was going in those beginning micro-moments—train wrecks and scrambled eggs…an unsightly and irrecoverable mess.
And not at all how I wanted to deliver my speech.
While I robotically began to introduce my topic, panicked thoughts of failure raced through my mind, fanning so much fear. Instead of being captivated by my story, I feared the audience would be distracted by watching me lose my sh*t on stage.
The fear in my mind bricked up any calm or confidence, and I was listening to this fear. Because I was listening to the fearful thoughts, I wasn’t present with my own words nor was I present with the audience.
Now that it’s over, I understand three voices were vying for the lead.
One voice, my outer human voice that everyone could hear, was dutifully trying to tell my story I’d just rehearsed perfectly backstage.
The second voice, my inner fearful voice, was ping-ponging at the front of my brain, frantically flailing and shouting about all the ways my fear (the shaky voice, the hurried words, the tightened throat) was quickly ruining everything and I should just curl up on the stage and cry until everyone left.
And then there was the third voice. This third voice of mine looked on with calm authority at the train wreck happening as I attempted to tell a good story, while my fear ran amok in my head.
I’m so grateful for this third voice inside me. It’s the compassionate and honest part of me. The part that blew the whistle, shaking her head and said, “Hold on. Take a breath. Reach out to the audience and just be honest. It will be okay when you do.”
So I blew the whistle and interrupting my own opening, I spoke directly to the expectant faces staring back at me and said, “Hey, I’m sorry guys, but I am really nervous up here. Can I just take a moment and shake it off?
Wonderfully, my audience was forgiving and seemed to appreciate my openness.
I’m not sure what the opposite of heckling is, but that’s what I received. The opposite of heckling sounds like kind shouts of support. It feels like flowers being tossed on the stage instead of scrambled eggs. Warm words of encouragement and enthusiastic clapping lightened the entire theater. Immediately, I felt the shift in my energy and the energy of the room.
While cracking my talk in two was the worst thing I could do during my speech, it also became the best thing I could do for myself. And the ripple effect is that it also became the best thing I could do for the audience.
At that moment, the audience went from being a distant entity to a close companion sitting right there along with me. They understood. Many of them were speakers too, who may have also made mistakes before. They could empathize with how jittery and unstable it can feel on the inside when we’re spotlighted on the outside. While they clapped, I could take the breath I needed, even while the cameras rolled and the lights shone down.
And then…I told my story. I fell into the engaging momentum I knew I was capable of. The heavy things I expressed were felt with open hearts. The comedic lines I potted along the way were laughed at on cue, faces wrinkling up in genuine amusement. I started strong again, plied them with pictures and emotions and a heartfelt narrative. In the end, I brought it all home to a roar of applause and smiles (and some tears).
What a ride. After, I received hugs. I was thanked for being honest about my fear and my needs. Some told me I killed it (in a good way). Some even left their seats mid-talks to come find me and make sure to tell me that my talk was amazing.
Some thanked me for taking that breath.
In so many ways, within our talents or careers, our relationships, or projects we are passionate about, we may try to achieve the best when we anticipate a momentous reception or connection.
But many times, when we lose our footing and the flailing begins, that’s when some magic we didn’t plan for emerges. Some unexpected shift reveals an even greater experience or learning than what we had planned.
Later, another speaker reminded me of something important that we all need to remember: that if you can name it, you can claim it.
Name the thing you’re feeling, and that feeling loses its grip. And that was true. Just shouting “I’m really nervous” helped me release the breath I didn’t know I was holding when I walked center stage.
If you think about this clever tool, you’ll see the truth in it.
I’m scared. I’m frustrated. I’m tired.
Naming the thing that is spinning us out helps us identify what we’re going through.
And when we know what we’re going through, it’s easier to know what the next step should be.
I’m tired—take a rest.
I’m frustrated—let’s break things down.
I’m furious—let’s walk through why.
The thing we are going through begins to lose its power. Naming the thing that’s derailing gets us back on track (just to continue with the train wreck imagery I seem to be rolling along).
It truly was the worst speech I ever gave.
But because of the flailing, the scrambled eggs, and the fear that threatened to conquer the stage, something stronger emerged than just the points in my speech.
My audience became human to me. I was human before them. We were all reminded that we can claim our fears by just calling them out for what they are. I could take a minute to breathe those fears out and away.
And then…then it became the best speech.
(You can watch it for yourself here, starting at minute 25:00).