the alternative to sorting mail

A few days ago, after speaking at an event, someone started a conversation with “as a veteran public speaker, you…”


Sometimes you get these glimpses of yourself from a perspective that doesn’t include your baggage and failures and insecurities and hopes. You see the baggage-free version you show to outsiders and at first, you wonder who they’re talking about, as this stranger they’re describing sounds nothing like you.

I do a lot of public speaking. People tell me all the time how they don’t know how I seem to do it so effortlessly and how afraid they are to speak in public and they just get so nervous about it all. How do I do it?

What they don’t know is that it’s not public speaking that terrifies me, it’s speaking at all. When you break down in hysterics in sixth grade because your speech therapist insists you call someone on the telephone, when you’re in elementary school, and you’re already the new kid, and the smart kid, the teacher’s pet, and the kids already have a million reasons to choose you as the one they ridicule and then they discover you stutter and it’s like sharks who see blood in the water — when this is the fear you have of speaking, the idea of simply speaking in public is nothing. If you can get over that fear, well, what more is there?

In part, I think it’s this. I should thank the high school speech pathologist who told me I would end up sorting mail in the post office. At my core is a fierce independence I will fight to preserve, and if someone tells me I can’t do something, then please get the fuck out of my way while I do it.

If I were to wax Freudian about it all, I might say that we learn things like relying on others and letting others help us and saying that we can’t do things all by ourselves the same way we learn how to brush our teeth and make toast and look both ways before crossing the street. And when you can’t rely on your parents, not even a little bit, not for support or guidance or praise or validation, you never really learn how to rely on anyone or anything.

So all you know is self-reliance. All you know is to be strong and not to be too loud and to take care of things the best you can. And not to count on anything at all.
The inability to speak due to technical brain difficulties and fear makes self-reliance more difficult. How do you make phone calls when you have an anxiety attack, complete with hyperventilation and sobbing every time you contemplate the idea of it? And (at least in the days before the web), it was difficult to get very far with many things without picking up the phone.

So, I guess I went the other way. I was told that I would never amount to anything because I had trouble getting all the words out talking one on one, so I worked and worked and kept going until I could talk to a thousand people at one time.

Working so hard to overcome my fear of speaking — just speaking meant that I’d already worked through any speaking with the word “public” in front it. It was all public to me.

I started public speaking early, which seems crazy considering my fears and humiliations and inability to communicate, but I didn’t want anything to keep me from doing what I wanted. And likely it was that stubborn independence, which deep down is really a panic of its own: Fuck, I have to be able to do all of this myself. If I can’t, who will help me? When I do something that someone tells me is courageous or strong or hard, I think, but it wasn’t. I had no choice. I had to be strong. I can’t count on someone else to help me lift the heavy weights. So I lift them, strong or not.

In high school, I was on the mock trial team twice, which required quick thinking and speaking with cross-examination and debating and the rest of your team counting on you. I also won the slot of representing my state in Washington DC in a competition that was half essay and half speech followed by a panel of questions.

At my first job after college, I gave lots of training. Now one knew that it scared me so much I spent my own (very meager) salary on speech therapy lessons that I tried to secretly fit in between work and school. Being comfortable with public speaking is something that only happens with lots of practice. The more you do it, the better you are. And since for me, any conversation was practice, I got better.

Which isn’t to say I don’t still get terrified and humiliated and angry. I’m generally fairly fluent these days, although I still stutter every day, at least a little. And I still have days when I can barely say anything at all.

I read a blog post about my weekly podcast once — the guy was mocking me — what was the deal with how I talked? I guess he got me on a bad week. And just a few days ago, I was driving to a friend’s house and the road was blocked off to all but local traffic because of a yearly festival. The friend had told us all to print the email inviting us over so we could show it to the police blockading the road and they’d let us through. I wasn’t able to print it out. So, I slowed down and talked to the cop. I told him the address I was going to, and that I hadn’t printed out the invitation like I was supposed to. I guess I stumbled on the address. “Are you sure that’s where you’re going?” he said. He smiled as though he was HILARIOUS. I guess I have the wrong perspective to get the joke.

So do I get nervous when I speak in public? Not really. Every conversation I’ve ever had has been rehearsal. But do I feel a moment of complete and utter panic every time I’m in the middle of a speech and find myself stumbling over a word, sure that I’ll be unable to utter another word and I’ll stand there, mute and I’ll struggle to get the words out and they won’t come and then what will I do, how will I make it through that? Of course. Of course I do.

But when someone calls me an experienced and comfortable public speaker, they don’t see my childhood and my speech therapy and all the times people hung up on me when I was blocked on a word because they thought the line was disconnected and the teasing and the fear. And that I’ve pulled through and worked and struggled so that all they see is the free and easy speech isn’t being strong. It’s just surviving.

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