A surprise that came with becoming a writer is the need for public speaking. To be honest, this wasn’t something I had foreseen and even if I had, I wouldn’t have worried a jot. I was the kid in high school who signed up for public speaking competitions for fun! I was on the debating team and later, during my career in media and public relations, I used to take part in Toast Masters to brush up on my presentation skills. Public speaking hasn’t been the worry for me I know it is for many others. When my best friend died six years ago, I didn’t hesitate to get up and speak at the funeral. At my latest stint at university a few short years ago, I was more than happy to address a lecture hall full of undergrad students. Imagine then, my shock when nerves overcame me at my first book club meeting last week.
A friend asked if I would be interested in coming to speak at her book club meeting. I was delighted. I pride myself on taking every opportunity to promote my work. The ladies read my two published short stories, and I shared with them an unpublished piece of work and a little about my writing journey. I have only been writing in earnest for just under a year and this was a golden opportunity to gain local exposure.
I chatted easily as the group caught up on gossip. We talked about the two stories they had read and how much the group enjoyed them despite the gritty content. After coffee and cake, I read aloud my short story ‘Triangulo Amoroso’ and that’s when it went wrong. I don’t know how to pronounce some of the Spanish words in my story and stumbled over them. During the reading, I found a glaring typo despite this story being proofread a hundred times. I tried a bit of eye contact throughout the reading, but afterwards my teeth wouldn’t stop chattering. So finally, I understood, this is what everyone talks about when they say they hate public speaking.
Days later and I try to analyse what went wrong. I was stressed and had failed to compensate and give myself a bit of leeway. I ignored the nerves and blindingly continued without doing what I could to ease my stress, and my nerves had gotten the better of me. I hadn’t made the most of the opportunity. I forgot to get a pic for social media and a much bigger mistake was not using the opportunity to add the book club ladies to my email list.
At lunch with a psychologist friend, we unpacked my emotions. First, I admitted I have been under pressure, both personally and professionally and hadn’t acknowledged the stress nor tried to ease it. Denial is apparently not the best coping mechanism.
I underestimated how much personal emotion I would need to bring in the telling of my writing journey. Without sounding pompous, I write because I breathe. It’s as simple as that. Writing is important. It makes me feel alive and I love to connect with others through my words. Yet, I almost felt, I bared my soul upon the page, must I bear it in person too? And the answer it seems, is yes.
The resounding feedback from the book club was that they enjoyed having a writer present in the flesh. I wasn’t someone they googled on the way to book club, I am a person who desperately wants to connect with the world through my writing. And so yes, I must bear my soul in person.
My tips then are preparation, preparation, preparation. I should have worked out how to say the Spanish words. I should have taken a clipboard so the ladies could have added their names to my email list. Above all, I should have acknowledged the strain I was under and been kinder to myself.
My tip for you (and for me in future) is to recognise and acknowledge stress and take steps to alleviate it. I could have acknowledged the stress and noted that nervousness helps; that adrenalin can and will enhance performance. I could have talked to myself instead of ignoring the jumbled thoughts in my head. I could have told myself that it was ok; it was just a book club meeting that nobody was out there to judge me.
Above all, I should remind myself to smile.
As writers, we often prefer to stay in the worlds we create in our heads. My learning this week, is that we can’t stay there. If we are to truly connect with our readers, we need to speak to them and more often than not, this will require us to speak publicly. So dear friends, feel the fear and do it anyway. It will hurt, but I have been reassured, that in time the fear will subside and although it may not become an enjoyable task, it can be a task that won’t cause our teeth to chatter.