• Pam McGaffin
  • Learning to talk -- Facing my fear of public speaking
Learning to talk -- Facing my fear of public speaking

I remember my first oral book report. It was that traumatic. I was in 3rd grade and I’d picked out a super-simple picture book to make it easy on myself. I think it was about frogs. With churning gut and clammy hands, I got up before all those faces and stood frozen while my heart galloped off in flight and my tongue turned to glue. The words I’d practiced in front of the mirror eventually tumbled out of my mouth, possibly in the wrong order, and everything shook -- hands, legs, voice. Then it was over.

About all that can be said of my performance is that I didn’t throw up.

I’m sure my teacher took pity on me. Stage fright is cute when you’re nine years old. But I’m going to be 58 later this month, and my phobia isn’t so endearing now. Shouldn’t a woman who has spent her entire adult life working with words be able to speak in front of people?

Thankfully I didn’t have to do too much of that as a newspaper reporter or, later, as a public-relations professional. Most of my interactions were one-on-one. I’m perfectly comfortable asking nosy questions of strangers. But put me in front of an audience, and my lizard brain takes over. Complex thinking goes out the window.

Think I’m being too hard on myself? Consider my experience as part of a panel at a professional conference in the 1990s. I was one of three education reporters addressing a room full of public-relations people representing colleges and universities. We were supposed to give them insights on how they could get more press for their institutions. I was nervous and ill-prepared. My mistake. In introducing myself, I confessed that I received an inordinate amount of PR mail, most of which ended up in recycling.

I felt the air shift. The panelist next to me jumped in and turned on her southern story-telling charm, rolling out anecdote after anecdote, filling my  time, determined not to let me open my mouth again. Then the third panelist took his turn, and they had a fun back and forth, while I sat there pretty much ignored. They continued to ignore me even after the session ended and I tried to be friendly.

Public speaking leads to private shaming. Is it any wonder I prefer to hide inside my turtle shell and let others do the talking?

The irony is, now that I’m home alone trying to write books, I can’t hide any longer. Writing is the art of introverts, it’s true, but at some point, you have to get out there and promote your book if you want anyone outside of your immediate family to read it. Following my novel’s release, I hope to give readings at a couple of Puget Sound-area book stores, including the one two blocks from my house. Such events are de rigueur for authors, but my stomach twists at thought. Flashback to third grade and that disastrous panel discussion.

That’s why I’ve decided, at long last, to get help.  I’ve turned to an organization I first heard about from my 83-year-old mother. Toastmasters began in 1905 as a YMCA club to teach men (women weren’t allowed until 1973) “how to speak, conduct meetings, plan programs and work on committees,” according to their website.

Toastmasters International, as it’s now known, currently has more than 345,000 members and 15,900 clubs in 142 countries. Looking up clubs within a five-mile radius of my north Seattle home, I found 50, including two within easy walking distance. Obviously, a whole lot of people want to become “more effective communicators and leaders.”

I don’t know about the leadership part, but I’d like to be able to read from my book without shaking.

So last week, I went to my first meeting. The website for the Notable Northgaters Club spoke to me:

“We know that many people are afraid of public speaking. You might be afraid to visit. We promise we don't bite, and we also promise that you will not have to give a speech when you visit! . . . We are truly friendly and want to make sure you are comfortable when you come to visit.”

The club meets Wednesday evenings in the basement of a church. I walked in and was immediately greeted by a gentleman (the Toastmaster/host), who asked me if I’d ever been to a meeting. When I said “no,” he seated me next to a woman who introduced herself as Linda and told me what to expect, including my role as a first-time guest, i.e., I could choose to participate or not, and I could come to as many free meetings as I wanted. Super low pressure.

She told me she’d joined Toastmasters because she was applying for work and wanted to be more confident in job interviews. Poised and personable, she seemed to have more than met her goal. I would have hired her on the spot.

After the Toastmaster made formal introductions, a young man, who happened to be the outgoing club president, gave a spirited speech on hip hop. As I understand it, members work their way through manuals, achieving certain milestones or awards by delivering different types of speeches. This particular presentation was to show the speaker’s use of visual and/or audio aids.

Every speech is critiqued by an evaluator who takes notes and a grammarian and “um counter” who listens for grammatical errors and filler words. There’s also a member who keeps track of time, switching on lights (green, yellow, red) to tell the speaker if he or she is about to run over.

It sounds intimidating, but the meeting I attended was buoyantly positive with frequent laughter and regular applause. (Clapping not only shows appreciation, it also wakes people up, the Toastmaster explained to me.)

At the end of the meeting, I felt so good I actually took the Toastmaster up on his invitation to comment.

“I have a hard time imagining any of you as beginners,” I said, getting proud smiles and a few chuckles. “I’m in awe. You’ve given me something to aspire to. I found this very enjoyable.”

I’d said less than 30 words, yet everyone clapped as if I’d given a speech.

Hm, that was actually kind of fun, I thought as I walked to my car.  I think I’ll be back.

Note to readers: I know I’ve been erratic of late with my  blog. My book journey is picking up steam, and life is about to get much busier. That’s a good thing, but it means less frequent posts for the near future (monthly vs. twice a month). I hope you're enjoying my ramblings. Please keep those comments coming because I LOVE to hear from you!


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