facing my fear public speaking

I stood at the podium and stared out at the empty hotel ballroom. It brings back memories of the time I had to stand in that very same spot to deliver the welcome address at my very first American friend’s wedding reception which was attended by her family, friends, co-workers not to mention the people from the groom’s invitation list…and nobody knew just how scared I was.

I have always had a fear of speaking in public. I think this started in kindergarten when our teacher would ask us to tell the class about how our weekend went and I always would just stare at them with my mouth open like a fish. My classmates would tease me saying nothing probably happened during the weekend as I had nothing to say either.

My elementary school days were no different.  Just to get up and read an excerpt from my book or recite would make my hands feel clammy and my stomach like it was invaded by bullfrogs.

Whoever said nerves felt like “butterflies in your tummy” probably never experienced having to deliver a report in front of the whole class with his or her crush sitting right in the middle of the first row.

Things were not improved with my teacher continually shrieking “What’s that? Speak up! I can’t hear you!” Believe me, there were just times that I was tempted to say “Well, sit in the front row then! It’s hard enough to be up here without you yelling at me!”

Why she sits in the back row if she really wanted to hear the report, I never could understand.

At home, it wasn’t much different.  Often after telling my mother of how my report went, our dialogue would be something like this: Mama: “Well, did you do enough research when you did your report?”

Me:  “Yes mama.” Mama:  “So why worry so much then if you are sure your report is good?”

Me:  “I don’t know mama. It just scares me so much to be in front of all those people.”

Mama:  “Ah, it is nothing. If you prepared well for your speech, you have no reason to be scared. Always be confident! Look at me, I have no problems talking to anyone!” Did I mention how my mother had one of the loudest voices in our village?  She is one of those outgoing people who would think nothing of hollering out the name of a friend 25 feet away in the marketplace.

Unfortunately she was also one of those people who would take it upon themselves to remedy a situation they feel is problematic. Imagine my surprise when one morning, Mama came into my room and told me to get up and come with her to the community center.  Our church was celebrating its anniversary and my mother volunteered me to be the host for the children’s games. “Come on, get up. It will be good for you. We will conquer that fear of yours of public speaking!” she triumphantly said.

 Me? With a microphone? In front of a huge crowd? This could not be happening! I swear I literally felt the blood drain from my face. Before I could get out any excuse to get out of having to host the children’s games, my mother pulled me up and got me into my jacket and clothes. She literally had to drag me to the community center. All I could think was

“Oh God, please help me out here, will you?”

I think I must have promised everything from never yelling at my little sister to doing the dishes and taking out the garbage  for a whole month without complaint.  My head was simply bursting with questions and worry: “What if I mispronounce a kid’s name?” “What is the name of our church again?” “What am I going to say?” “What if I drop the microphone?’ “What if the kids suddenly attack me?” (Oh, all right, I know that sounds a tad much but you don’t know fear like I do.)

Every step I took seemed like it was accompanied by the music from Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

“Da da da DUM…Da da da DUM…” It was like a long walk to the executioner’s block.  As we approached the center, I started feeling that all too familiar coldness starting from my hands and feet and draining my face of all color. The bullfrogs in my stomach have begun to make their appearance…and we weren’t even at the community center yet!

When we got to the center I almost fainted with relief when one of the event organizers asked if  it was okay if we turned over the games hosting duties to the head of the local school’s

PTA who was also a local celebrity. Believe me I couldn’t say “YES!” fast enough. My mother, I admit, was more than a little disappointed.  However, the optimist that she is, she turned to me and said “Don’t worry, we’ll have another chance next time.” She has no idea to this day how much of a threat that statement sounded to my ears. I have to give her credit for trying though.  After the church event, she never ceased to try and find opportunities for me to “practice” my public speaking.  She would always tell me all that I needed was a good script and a dash of confidence and I’ll be set.

My father didn’t help much either. He has always been one of those quiet men who would just answer with either a nod or a smile.  One time I came to him seeking help in foiling my mother’s attempts to get me to speak in public. I remember he smiled, got up from his chair and patted my head saying “Good luck.” Thanks Dad.

I was fortunate enough to have mostly avoided situations where I had to speak in public. School reports were inevitable however, but I got by with holding my cue cards up to my face and keeping my eyes glued on those in order to avoid looking at the audience. I know it’s bad practice in public speaking but I figured it was better than freezing up in fear and just staring at the audience.

That day at the wedding reception however, it was different. While I absolutely detest speaking in public, I felt honored by my friend’s request to welcome people who mean so much to her and her husband-to-be to their wedding reception.

It was among the first few speeches I had to give in English so I was definitely nervous at making mistakes and mispronouncing words. My friend came to me and said “Thank you so much. I know you must be so nervous right now but I know you can do this.” Oh how different those words were from my mother’s “What do you mean you can’t do the toast at your cousin’s wedding?”

That day, I can’t remember if I mumbled or stuttered through my speech.  I was reading my prepared speech through glazed eyes and even dropped my cue card a couple of times while the frogs in my stomach were jumping like there was no tomorrow so really, how good or bad the speech went, I just can’t say.

I suppose I must have done something right though for later on during the party, my friend came up to me, gave me a hug, and with a huge smile said “Thank you so much.”

To this day, I do not know if she was thanking me more for the effort or the entertainment.

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