I’m encouraging my daughter to run for class representative for SGA. She’s hesitant; I understand. But I regret not running for SGA in high school when I had the opportunity. I might’ve been a decent student council rep, but I hesitated and lost the chance. Can you guess why I hesitated?
Of course. This time it wasn’t a fear of failure. It was a fear of public speaking. As fears go, this is a common one. But the student council reps didn’t have to speak publicly; they only had to perform silly skits at the annual homecoming banquet. Once a year. Once.
And it wasn’t as if anyone in high school expected an Oscar-winning performance or Meryl Streep accents or Tom Cruise good looks. We only had to be in front of the other high schoolers for a few minutes, say almost-funny things, and entertain the banquet goers. Seriously. That terrified me enough that I refused to run for class rep when someone nominated me.
Silly. But it didn’t feel silly then.
At some point during college, I realized that few people are comfortable with public speaking. That meant many listeners were sympathetic, even if I displayed signs of nervousness.
(If they knew that their presentation was next on the class agenda, they were sweating, gulping, and squirming in their seats, and not thinking about me.)
As a college pal told me, the soloists during a chapel service received standing ovations in two scenarios: outstanding performance or total failure. I guess we felt admiration for the rock star in training and sympathy for the singer who should never have a microphone near her mouth again.
But all through school, teachers forced students to speak publicly, usually on safe, boring topics.
Give a persuasive speech, our communications professor told us. (As long as it’s uncontroversial and in keeping with our conservative Christian ideas.)
Give step-by-step instructions for a project, our junior high teacher told us. (As if every project has easily numbered, consecutive steps.)
Tell about your summer reading book, all our English teachers said. (As if we had really wanted to read that book, and not one of our own choosing.)
And the instructions:
Three to four minutes. (You’ll be timed. I have a stopwatch, and I’ll know if you end at 2:59 or at 4:01.)
Have five to seven index cards with your notes. (You’ll turn them in. No, a piece of paper won’t work. It must be index cards. 3 by 5 index cards, not 5 by 7s.)
Use expression, make eye contact, stand up straight, and don’t you dare lean on the podium. (You might break it, and we don’t have enough funding for a new podium. Private schools don’t get tax payer money, you know.)
Was it any wonder that I was terrified?
I finally figured out that I was okay with public speaking if I was an expert on the topic. If I was surrounded by people who knew more than I did, I was incoherent. If I had researched and written and thought on the subject more than my audience, I was calm, cool, and collected.
- Besotted by Impressionism and Post-impressionism, I babbled about French painters to my high school French class. (My classmates had never heard me speak so many words at one time.)
- Fascinated by Antigone and gender roles in the ancient Greek tragedy, I was calm, unfazed by questions from classmates and professors.
- Enthralled with Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos, I enjoyed my presentation to my Elizabethan poetry and prose class.
I didn’t even mind doing “current events” for my high school Biblical worldview class, assignments that most students found tedious.
I chose articles that related to our topic of study. Deep, meaty news articles or thoughtful editorials—I pulled quite a few from Christianity Today magazine—gave me things to ponder and ideas to wrestle.
So when the teacher asked me to present mine to the class, I had something of substance to say. I wanted my classmates to hear it, too. I wasn’t afraid, not so much because I knew something, but because I wanted to deal with the questions rolling in my head.
It wasn’t so much knowledge and expertise that made the difference between fear and confidence.
It was love.
I loved the art and literature, and that love drove away my worries. I loved the questions and wrangling with issues, and that love made me set aside my qualms and express those questions to my classmates.
Perfect love casts out fear. It’s something I’m learning and relearning right now, in so many areas of my life. Probably it’s a lesson I’ll be learning my entire life.
If you’ve experienced something like this, I’d love to hear about it!
(Ironically, shortly after I wrote this post, I ran across a Writer Unboxed post about writers speaking in public, along with tips on how to handle stage fright. For writers, it’s worth reading, and so are the comments.)