Public Squeaking


About a week before the day, my stomach starts to slowly clench in preparation. I’m going to be speaking in front of people, and I already have the squirmy feeling in my gut that will intensify in waves until I finally stand up in front of everyone.

It’s a weirdly specific fear. Unlike many other people who have anxiety about public speaking, I actually sort of like being the center of attention. I love to make people laugh. I’ll happily crack a joke in a room full of people. It’s just this thing of standing, facing everyone, and speaking something prepared that kills me. I don’t mind pulling off something unexpected, but when it comes to a situation where it all goes quiet and there are expectations, I feel ill.

The day gets closer and now my brain reminds me several times a minute that I’m going to be standing up there. I’m giving a presentation, but I’ve also agreed to MC the whole two-day event. There are only going to be about thirty attendees, but there’s no real difference between that and 4000 to my frantic mind.

I start to imagine all the ways I’m going to bomb. What if I say something absolutely awful and disgust everyone? What if I completely mind blank, and have to just stand there, looking red in the face, mouth open? What if I fall over? What if I vomit?

A couple of days before the event I finally get around to practicing my presentation. To my ears I sound ridiculous, and it doesn’t help that — closeted in the bedroom five minutes into my first real rehearsal — I get a text from my wife, downstairs. Could you maybe turn off the baby monitor? It throws me off for half an hour. I’m too embarrassed to speak to myself, alone in a bedroom. My fears of bombing intensify. My other latent, unconnected anxieties begin to really ramp up.

I’m actually moderately glad that I’m MC’ing as well, because I know how it works for me. The first time I speak in front of people after not doing it for a while is the worst. After that it gets a lot easier. So I’ll be able to burn away some of my nerves on something that isn’t my big presentation.

The night before, I’m bad-tempered to my wife, and I can’t concentrate on anything. I try to write but all I can do is stare at the page and feel gross and nauseous. I go over my presentation for the umpteenth time. Then I give it to my wife. She says it was great. Yeah, yeah. I think, grumpily and uncharitably. Sure, it was great in here, but in front of a bunch of people it’s going to derail horrendously before I’ve made it to the second slide.

For dinner, right before the event begins, my wife makes my favorite meal, Beef Stroganoff. I can’t even taste it as I scarf it down. Part of me is angry at the rest of me for not being able to enjoy it. Most of me just wants to cancel everything and watch some TV.

Go time.

At this point, minutes before the big start, time becomes like a dwindling mana bar. I feel like I’m nursing every second, savoring each one agonizingly as it skips past. Finally, there is no more time left. The room goes quiet. Every eye turns to me and I feel like a blimp caught in a hundred spotlights.

I open my mouth and begin to speak.

The words fall all over themselves to get out of my mouth, at first, but gradually I slow down and get into more of a rhythm. I get a laugh from a solid half of the crowd for an extemporized joke, and try a couple more later on to varying success. I’m striving for something between “disarmingly funny” and “respectably serious and in command”. By the time I’m done with my opening remarks and heading back to my seat past the first speaker I’m a little shaky but relieved. I can do this.

My next chunk of talking, I’m still nervous, but a lot looser. I go off script here a couple of times, and when I try a joke that goes unnoticed I do my standard fallback trick of calling attention to it. “Not giving me any laughs for that, no?” Which gets a laugh, of course.

When I moved from Northern Ireland to Minnesota, I had to completely strip down and gut my humor. Joke structures proven to work like magic on a Celtic crowd plummeted awkwardly like the proverbial leaden balloon in the Twin Cities. A lot of my material was based on a kind of viciously self-deprecating, savage persona which really connected with people. In the Midwest, when you tell people something along the lines of “here’s some funny reasons I’m still single despite my best efforts”, it doesn’t get the big laughs. Instead they either earnestly try to convince you that you aren’t that bad, or they just come away believing everything you say.

So I had to go back to basics. The biggest difference I’ve noticed about American humor (speaking generally and very broadly) is that jokes have to be telegraphed further in advance and with much more force. Also you need to lay some extensive groundwork for edgier material, and be prepared to go with rake-to-face stuff at the drop of a hat.

Anyway, I’m only halfway to being as funny as I used to be, but I’ve started to figure out what works, so when I start getting some reactions as I stand in front of the crowd it’s all I can do not to keep making with the funnies. Not the point, I have to remind myself, and stick to business. Don’t milk it.

Day 2, I’m worried that I’ll have starting jitters all over again, but as I introduce my own presentation (Folks, I’ve known our next speaker all of my life, hurr hurr.) I have the benefit of getting over the previous day’s hump, and it goes pretty smoothly.

At this point I’d be happy to just keep doing this ad infinitum, because I start to enjoy myself and I feel like I’m improving, but the familiar dull antsiness of spending too much time relating with people has started to creep in by mid-afternoon. I’m more than happy to keep my final few remarks as brief and to-the-point as possible.

As I write this on the evening of the day after the event, I’m only just really starting to loosen up and move past the ancillary anxiety that always manifests itself at times of stress. My hitpoints are starting to replenish.

Speaking in front of people. Love it. Hate it.