Several years ago, I was invited to lecture in Seattle to an audience consisting largely of mental health professionals like myself. I walked on stage and after several impromptu comments, I glanced down at the lectern to begin my formal presentation. But my prepared talk was not there.
Waves of anxiety washed over me as I faced my most dreaded fantasy. I stood in front of hundreds of people who had left the comfort of their homes and had paid a considerable sum to hear me. And my talk had disappeared.
Minutes earlier, I had placed the only copy of my talk on the podium, and then retreated backstage while being introduced. But when the person who introduced me finished, she carried away both her introduction and my talk. She then rushed out of the building to another engagement.
As a veteran public speaker I have many such stories to tell, although none nearly as terrible as "The Tale of the Disappeared Talk." (Or, "Speechless in Seattle" as I've titled this saga earlier)
Once, in Portland, I opened a lecture by saying, "I'm so happy to be here with you in Denver this evening." It was the next-to-last stop in a 17-city book tour, and I was beyond exhausted. Several women in the front row yelled back at me, "Portland, Portland!" They were trying to be helpful, but I stood there on stage and stared at them blankly. Why, I wondered, were these nice women yelling "Portland" at me?
Then there was the lecture in Berkeley where I tossed my head in an infelicitous fashion, snagging an earring on my wool suit jacket. My right ear was pinned to my shoulder, and despite my best efforts, I couldn't extricate myself. After several minutes of silence and fumbling, I was rescued by a relative who ran up on stage to release me from a position that I have otherwise assumed only while doing neck rolls in yoga class.
During my early years of public speaking, I also suffered more than a few plain old-fashioned anxiety attacks. Since I couldn't predict when nausea, tachycardia or other symptoms of terror would strike, I worried nonstop about it happening. Shortly before going on, I would huddle backstage with my manager, Jo-Lynne Worley, and whisper urgently:
"I can't do this. Why am I doing this? Nothing is worth going through this. I will never do this again."
Jo-Lynne, who had heard this litany before, would respond calmly, "You'll do great. You've done it a million times," whereupon she'd remind me to breathe and push me on stage in the direction of the podium.
My evaluations invariably included comments like, "Harriet is such a warm and relaxed speaker." But even the most enthusiastic audience response did little to reassure me the next time around.
I have come to grips with the fact that I will never entirely transcend my fear of public speaking. But at least I'm in good company. In September 1989, Barbara Ehrenreich, published an article in Ms. Magazine called Public Freaking, reassuring her readers that over time, abject terror about public speaking subsides into mere dread.
One does live, she tells us. Regrettably, one does live to speak again.
To be continued in Part II (also see The Dance of Fear)