Accepting The Fear

I speak. In fact, I speak fairly regularly. I’ve been speaking for nearly 20 years now, and I like to think I’m reasonably good at it. At least once a month, and quite often more, I find myself in front of an audience who wants to know what I have to say.

The good news is that I usually do have something to say. The bad news-if one might call it that-is most times before I present, I have a deep and abiding anxiety about what I am about to say. That it will come out wrong. That it will not be received well. That my message will fall flat. That I will forget what I want to say. This is not unique or novel to me, of course. But 20 years on, you would think it would subside a little bit.

The interesting thing, several hundred presentations on, is that I rarely actually stumble, or fall, or completely fail to deliver. Some people in the audience may be more or less receptive. What I have to say may resonate more for one than it does for another. Some are more prepared to hear and genuinely take on a message than others. But it is rare that a presentation is a total, miserable, abject failure.

At the same time, it is equally rare that a presentation is an absolute, runaway success. Some are, some aren’t. You strive to hit it out of the park, and somedays you do. Equally true, some days you don’t. We accept that in athletes. We accept that in actors. We accept that in colleagues. Yet we rarely, if ever, accept that in ourselves.

I had that experience during this past week. I gave two presentations, back to back. Different presentations, to different audiences, in different cities. One, I am incredibly proud of. I never really give myself a ’10’-there is always something you might do better-but I would give it a good, solid 9.75. It was fun, I was engaged, I connected with the audience, I was comfortable. The hour just flowed.

My other presentation wasn’t bad, per se. I spoke well. I got good feedback. I was comfortable with the content and what I was trying to say. I had examples and relevant stories to share. But it didn’t flow as well. I wasn’t as comfortable with the delivery. It was not one of my stellar presentations. It was good; I would give it a solid, respectable, workmanlike ’8’. It was a respectable showing, but it wasn’t my best, and I knew it.

The hard thing is to objectively assess what went wrong and why. To truly get a sense of where you hit the target, and where you missed. And in particular, it is hard to accurately identify what you might do better the next time. This is why athletes have coaches; they provide an objective, mostly impartial view of what is happening and what to do about it. It is very hard to hold the mirror up to our own face, and to accurately assess our faults.

I have some ideas of what happened on that particular day. I was using a different presentation set up. I was using less familiar equipment. Most importantly, I didn’t have a clock or timer to let me know where I was and how long I had left to speak. The result was a constant, low-level anxiety about whether I was going long-or if I had too much time. I didn’t know whether to add information, or to quickly hurry on and speed up.

When I finally got a time signal from the room monitor, I was able to relax. I knew where I was, I knew how much room I had to work with, and I knew what to do to finish. The last 15 minutes went smoothly, and I ended the way that I wanted to.

The irony is that, for anyone reading this who was in either audience, they likely have no idea which presentation is which. It is just as likely that those in my ’just ok’ presentation assume that the speech they attended was the really good one. They can’t see inside my head. They aren’t aware of the anxiety. They can’t see the little cogs of my mind spinning madly. But I can. I know the difference. And I care enough to want to continue to get better.

That is, ultimately, why the fear is useful. It means that we care. It signals a sensitivity to doing well. It provides fuel to perform. If it ever truly disappears, that will probably be the time to worry.

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