Sunday, 24 March 2013

Public Speaking and the Fear That Lurks Inside

The first time I remember feeling real terror as a child I was alone in my room with a burst balloon trying to suck the rubber until it popped like Clingfilm. Rubber, however, isn’t as easily popped as Clingfilm and it resisted my herculean efforts to make it.  Instead the balloon shot to the back of my throat and lodged there, blocking my airway. I was terrified.  I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t shout for help.  I choked, I coughed, I turned red and I panicked. I am here now, so it all turned out fine in the end, but for those few seconds I was truly frightened and clawing at my throat in abject terror as I couldn’t get any air in to my lungs, marvelling all the while at the tenuous hold we have on our own mortality.

This was the first time I remember experiencing the sensation of being unable to breathe. It certainly wasn’t the last.

Meet me and you will quickly realise that there are some things I do well, or more accurately, often and incessantly. Talking is one such thing.  I could talk until the cows come home; talk the rear (and front legs) off a donkey and any other ridiculous simile you’d care to toss my way. Give me a topic and - I might not know anything about it - but I’ll unadvisedly have a clumsy bash at conversing on it. Your main problem is stopping me full flow. I remember a school report from a high school geography class which rather wittily sniped, “work sometimes interferes with her chatting”. Meet me and you’d probably make the mistake of thinking that I always enjoy an audience.

The second time I felt the same discomfort and terror I was in high school. I had prepared a solo talk. It was pretty funny, or at least I thought so.  My chosen topic was an irreverent report about the motivations behind Jarvis Cocker interrupting the pomposity of Michael Jackson’s Brits performance of Earth Song. I felt confident I could make the audience laugh. My friends had laughed when we practised our talks in the lunch break before.

The first 30 seconds were fine – if somewhat quick. Then I looked up. I looked up and realised where I was. I was standing in front of a group of my peers, their attention was on me, and I panicked. I stopped breathing.  I tried to speak, but I couldn’t. I stuttered.  I tried again, nothing.  I fled that room in tears.

A few years later, again in high school, I was in sixth year and Head Girl. A concert was given to honour the retirement of my primary school head teacher and I was asked to write a tribute.  Given her many attributes, it wasn’t a difficult task to pay homage to a dedicated and supportive teacher such as Mrs Gilfillan. It is a shame that my considered written words, when I attempted to read them from stage, failed to do her justice.  Mid-way through my voice just stopped.  Again I fled in tears. I think some people thought I was overcome with emotion at paying tribute to Mrs Gilfillan, but I wasn’t; I was in tears because I couldn’t articulate myself, breathe or find the courage to read what I had so painstakingly written.

Mark Twain said that there are only two types of public speakers in the world; the nervous, and the liars. I don’t necessarily agree, but I take his point.

Hyperventilation is a construct of the mind.  It isn’t any less real for being so. It feels real and it provokes a real physical response as the brain tells the body that it can’t breathe. For people who suffer from panic attacks it can be terribly debilitating. I am lucky that my panic attacks were limited to public speaking. Some people have their lives severely restricted by other situation-based experiences even more frequent; like crowded spaces, small spaces or even empty rooms. I feel a kinship with anyone who has experienced panic attacks. It isn’t rational, but it is very real to the person experiencing that sensation. It certainly isn’t as simple as mind over matter; not when it is the mind that is the matter.

When I went to the University of Aberdeen to study law, I decided to take part in mooting.  Perhaps in the swanky new law library there still resides a dusty trophy bearing the names of the winners of the 2001 mooting competition; myself and the lovely Miss Joanne Powrie.

Poor Joanne, unfortunately for her, was probably the person most familiar with the limitations of my public speaking.  She chose ill for a partner as I had to be cajoled along at every stage.  Oh the jokes about paper bags we made and laughed at. It was funny, to an extent, but I am aware that I used humour as a defence mechanism to cover up my discomfort. That we won is tribute to Joanne’s wonderful legal reasoning rather than any conquering of my incapacitating fear of speaking in public.

Undeterred, I decided a less formal form of public speaking might conquer my affliction and off to Cyprus I toddled in 2003 to work as a holiday rep. What I took away from Cyprus is affection for the country, an intellectual curiosity about the political situation, a love for karaoke and some wonderful memories. I didn’t conquer my fear of public speaking even if I was happily disinterested enough to wax lyrical confidently to a group of holiday makers about the virtues of Cyprus.

It did, however, teach me a lesson: that where I am imparting knowledge to people eager to hear it - such as holiday makers, or in a training environment - I am confident to speak in front of people. I had already learned as a sixth year at high school, when I crashed higher drama at the school across the road, that I was confident when I was performing someone else’s words. I just lacked the confidence to articulate my own.

I have been a trainer, I have presented information to groups over the years since university, and even then still got a small flutter of panic as I step in front of a group, but it was manageable, a managed discomfort.

This year I made a decision. I decided that it lacks integrity to snipe on the sidelines about people who have the ability to deliver their own words to an audience whilst lacking the courage to get up and articulate my own alternative. I have opinions and if I have any conviction in them, I should be able to stand in front of a group of people and substantiate them. Else how can I critique with any credibility others who put themselves out to public scrutiny?

And so I have embarked on a journey which is perhaps the most difficult thing I have undertaken in my life.  I consider the fear I have past felt every time I stand in front of an audience.  My mouth goes dry and I feel the back of my throat begin to close. Then I remember that I am there to speak because I believe in the topic I am addressing, and that is a powerful motivator.

How proud was I, and privileged, to be one of those to speak in the NATO debate at SNP conference in 2012? I waited in the huge audience half terrified, half desirous of hearing my name being read out to speak on a matter of fundamental importance that I am absolutely passionate about.

My name was read out and I wandered up there in a dwam, conscious of the thousands of faces riveted on the stage. Nonetheless, I got up there and I spoke. It might not have been the performance that I’d like to have given, but that I was there at all was remarkable to me.

Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Make Friends and Influence People wrote, “There are always three speeches for every one you actually give: the one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wished you’d given.”

Afterward, as I took my seat I was shaking so much I spilled my bottled water down me, but that was a lesson to me.  That was progress, and it gets easier every time I undertake to speak in public.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate and flattered to be asked to speak at various events in support of independence.  I’ve addressed an audience at Glasgow University, talking about gender and the referendum; kicked off proceedings in front of 600+ at the launch of Yes Glasgow; and began my campaign to be selected as an MEP candidate for 2014 by being involved in hustings meetings, making my case directly to meetings of party members and activists across the country.

Every time I make my way to the final full stop of my speech I feel a small personal victory. Perhaps practice won’t entirely conquer the fear, but passion is a powerful motivator and I am passionate about the direction which Scotland moves in. And if I sometimes feel the flutter of fear, so what?

**Since I wrote this, I today failed to be selected as one of the SNP's candidates for Europe. I don't see this as a failure though.  I got up in front of a big audience to try to sell myself - which is a whole other shade of fear. I evidently didn't do the best job in the world, but just being up there on that stage is a personal victory for me, so I am a winner too!

And thanks to everyone who supported and voted for me. I owe you all a debt of gratitude.