According to The Book of Lists, fear of public speaking ranks number one in the minds of a majority of people.
Far above the fear of death and disease, comes fear of standing in front of a crowd.
We all want to be movie stars, but are terrified of the spotlight. I have some opinions about why this happens, to be covered in a future article.
My first public humiliation came when, as a top-heavy mushroom in a second grade play, I fell off the stage. I hid for what seemed like weeks. Kids are more cruel than any other species of animal, since they tell the truth. Surely I would never be a whole human being again. I might as well have died.
Two days later, all of the other kids had forgotten the whole thing.
My next memory of public speaking was in the fifth grade, when Ms. Norris the Nasty announced, “Mr. Eggleston, your 10 minute speech will be, The influence of Persian Literature on the New Jersey Turnpike Design,” or something equally stupid.
Finally, I had a temper tantrum, except by even that tender age these had morphed into rants, in front of the class.
I remember how the words were propelled from me by some supernatural, alien force.
“Miz Norris, (We Didn’t Have Ms. in those Days) I spent all year trying to get somebody to listen to me and now that I finally get to talk why can’t I talk about what I want to say?”
After having to write I must not yell at the teacher 500 times, I discovered that I had earned a new respect among my peers. I was an INSTIGATOR! This rebellious nature stuck with me through today. I have learned to channel it somewhat, and temper it a lot, but it is nevertheless there, and is now an asset rather than a liability.
What has this little anecdote added to the message?
Not a lot, except I just told you two of what appeared at the time, to be the most embarrassing moments in my life. It was not the end of the world.
Soon, I realized that as long as I believed in what I was saying, I could say it!
The more passionately I believed it, the more passionately I talked about it.
The true awakening came many years later when I realized that umpty Million years from now, when the Sun burns the Earth to a cinder, that stupid mushroom is not very important in the cosmic sense.
I stopped worrying about what people think of me, when I realized how seldom people think of anyone but themselves.
There is no secret trick to public speaking, there is only confidence.
If you can not begin by having confidence in yourself, you must begin by having confidence in your message.
I was an obtuse bore, but eventually someone asked me to come talk to their customers about my current obsession, quality.
How many people could it be, 8 or ten? I arrived at a building that looked like a city on Krypton and suddenly got that fear again.
When I was ushered into a quiet little conference room, complete with a very civilized setting of tea and biscuits, I lost a bit of that fear.
I started re-rehearsing what I was going to say. I focused on how I was going to concentrate on only one person at a time, and talk personally to every one, even if there were as many as 20.
I got here (having bitten off a bit more than I was sure I could chew) on BS and fancy footwork, I can get through it the same way.
From time to time, someone would pop their head in to announce that the audience would arrive in ten or fifteen minutes. On the five minute call, I paid a visit to the john, and was ready for the worst.
Eventually someone popped in and with the tone of a judge invoking death by slow torture said, “Mr. Eggleston, you’re Up.”
I sort of blindly followed her into this grand auditorium, filled with more people that have ever existed in one space since Woodstock.
The house lights were up, and I could see all of their faces. Worse yet, they could see me. Is my tie straight, is my shirt stained, oh my God is my fly down?…..
Help me, I’m dying out here!
I heard the last syllable of my name over a PA speaker that surely belonged in Yankee Stadium and a deep-voiced, macho announcer shook my hand, pointed me to a white dot in front of a microphone, and pronounced sentence on my soul.
Without prompting (or warning) out it came — “Good morning ladies and gentlemen, my name is Steve Eggleston, and I’m here to help you get excited about quality!”
Now wait — anticipate — “My God, I have their attention! No tomatoes, cream pies, boos or Bronx cheers. Hey, that was pretty easy, I’m going to go for it.”
I stepped fully out of the character that was Steve Eggleston, the paranoid, and into the character that was T. Stephen Eggleston, confident public speaker, expert on the subject, slayer of production dragons and all around super-hero.
I have little memory of my performance, only that when it was over, there was applause. I was at once exhilarated and exhausted.
I could easily see how applause can be addicting.
But the client,had not finished with me. The announcer stepped to the mike and announced on my behalf;
“…I am certain that Mr. Eggleston won’t mind entertaining a few questions from the audience…”
My presentation (to this point) was a very well scripted and thoroughly rehearsed speech. (Possibly overly so.)
Now — suddenly — with no warning — free fall — no net — no Kevlar vest!
Worse still, I would have no carefully scripted character behind which to hide! This wasn’t in the agreement!
Here, however, I could talk to one person at a time. I could let my gaze wander while I was speaking, but would always return to that one person, the one with the question.
When I finished the question and answer session, there was again, applause. I knew I had done well, and was booked for a repeat performance.
From that trial by fire forward I would never again find myself terrified of a live audience.
Yes, I get nervous, but it is not the counterproductive gnawing fear that I had shared with so many other people.
Nerves are good. They help you think of details you might otherwise forget. “Check Your Tie, Check Your Fly, Say It Right then Say Good-bye!“
Coming to a minor revelation, I realized that the “rules” for speaking that I had heard for years were true.
Know your subject, prepare both intellectually and emotionally, speak with confidence, and most of all —
Be sincere, whether you mean it or not.
The next hurdle was facing the Television Camera. I’d spent a lot of time behind a camera as a still photographer and fill in studio camera operator for a Washington, DC television station, but the front of one was a different story.
Again, some simple rules apply.
One of the secrets of being a good photographer of people is to relate to the subject, and get them to relate to you. If done well, the camera soon ceases to exist. It becomes an extension of the photographer’s persona.
When it finally became my turn in the television lights, I arrived early, and introduced myself to the camera operators. Not just a “Hi, I’m Steve,” but I took time to chit-chat with them for a few minutes while they were setting up.
Since I had established a prior dialogue with each of them (at least in my mind,) it was relatively easy to look through the camera, and speak to the person behind it.
I pretended that the camera crew, stage manager and director were actually interested in what I had to say rather than seconds on a clock or marks on the floor. They verified their interest when they vied for my attention by turning on little red lights on top of their cameras.
“Still” cameras, however, continue to make my toes curl and I’d rather face a loaded gun. Fortunately I am adept at avoiding both.