Lessons from Public Speaking

I was recently given the opportunity to teach a class on web content management at work. The basic concept was to teach the business experts and government bureaucrats I work with how to use the software we use to run our website. I was thrust into the role by pure chance of knowing a thing or two about the web. I have no formal training and absolutely no experience teaching anything. I also had no way out of it. The only other person who could teach the course—our actual web designer—was more than happy to let me stand in front of a group of thirty people and make a fool out of myself.

I have to admit something.

Despite publishing my thoughts regularly on the Internet and producing a weekly podcast, I do not consider myself a public speaker. Don’t get me wrong, I loved acting in high school—standing below the burning lights, caked in ten layers of the thick clay we call theater makeup, reciting lines someone else wrote with someone else’s voice. Spouting off lines in ridiculously bad accents and being generally unaware of my unbelievable lack of talent carried through many of my formative years. I drew an incredible amount of pleasure from the entire experience of being a performer.

Then high school ended. I went out into the real world and somehow became convinced I was an introvert. I hid away inside my apartment, safe behind a wall of discarded pizza boxes and grocery store chicken containers. The only time I came close to performing was during Eldaraenth events or sitting around a grease covered table with a handful of other geeks and living vicariously through Erik Dondalin, the epic level ranger with a magic item consuming sword and the ability to travel through time and space on a whim.
I told myself I was terrified to speak to large groups and it became true.

I tried to avoid any obligation to address a crowd. The idea of standing before strangers and just talking caused the bear and wolverine in my stomach to renew their ancient war. If I actually tried to go through with it anyway, the world would spin around me until I was so discombobulated I lost all language skills. Word salad became my only recognizable skill.

But, the part of me with a raging hard-on for attention couldn’t be quelled.

At the same time I was turning more and more inward and spending more time laying on a couch shoving industrial-sized packages of pizza rolls down my throat by the fist-full, I was attending Eldaraenth events and thrusting myself into every possible group in an attempt to wow a crowd.

I choked my way through Shining Happy People during Karaoke one weekend, wolverine clawing away at my insides in a desperate attempt to avoid the bear’s best attempt at the people’s elbow, then, the next weekend, I would stand in a group of fifty and happily spout about the unparalleled importance of the new moon.

I would chain smoke a carton of cigarettes out behind the shed to avoid being forced to interact with more than one person at a time during a party, then goat dance around a bonfire to entertain the masses at the next event.

On and on it went, my mundane life growing increasingly isolated and depressed. My fantasy life growing more and more desperate for crowds to appease and sway, until, one day, the two clashed.

It was during my last large Eldaraenth event.

I had decided, for reasons only my twisted and garbled subconscious could understand, to give a speech for the players. There were some cultural elephants dancing in the corners of the room, and I wanted to address them and remind everyone about the shiny, happy fun times we can have. I wrote a speech. I practiced a speech. I kept a copy of my speech on my kindle so I could reference it if I got lost while speaking.

Then, I actually gave my speech.

The same people who had seen me tell dozens of stories, witnessed me make a mockery of myself, and had probably seen me naked at one point or another, watched as I stood at one end of a room and talked.

The wolverine sucker punched the bear in his bear parts, and I almost passed out.

I swore off speaking. I swore off performing.

I fled to Montana.

This was all running through my brain as I stood at one end of a large room, PowerPoint presentation plastered on the wall behind me. I kept thinking, “I’m not a teacher. I’m not an expert on this. They’re going to know. They’re going to flay me alive and chase me into the street with burning pitchforks and plastic jug vodka!”

Thirty pairs of eyes watched in anticipation. I reached down and clicked on the first slide.

There are a few moments in your life when you know everything is going to go horribly wrong, and when everything went “Kaploof” on my laptop, I was in one of those moments. The funny thing is, as my prepared slides and awesome examples melted into a metaphorical pile of slag, so did my worry.

“Well, I guess that’s not going to work.” It was the first sentence that came to my mind, and the last one I had to think of on my own. Questions flooded in and my answers came out before I was thinking. I made jokes. I explained some simple things. I promised everyone we’d do it again. I rushed, trying to fit everything into the hour we had planned and skipped over important information, but, I didn’t care. The conversation went where the conversation went.

As people got up to leave, several stopped to tell me I’d done a great job. I figured my nervous flop-sweat had pressed all the way through my shirt and they could tell by smell alone I needed some positive reinforcement. I watched them leave as I disconnected my laptop and considered the trembling in my hands, the napalm on my cheeks, and the pulse hammering hard enough to make a rampaging herd of buffalo sound quiet.

It wasn’t terror I was feeling, but a strange mix of anxiety and excitement.

It made me realize something very important. I don’t have to worry about performing, speaking, or teaching. I just have to get out of my own way and let me be me. I’ll get plenty of attention. I’m that loud, anyway.