Glossophobia and The Fugitive Mind

Stage fright is a truly terrible feeling.  Many people confront it, but usually they manifest their experience in different ways.  Some people cry, some talk louder, some simply feel a vague sense of dread as they move through the speech.  What I’ve noticed in talking to people about it over the years is that the experience of it changes dramatically from person to person, but it is always quite miserable if you feel it.

I have an awful fear of speaking on stage.  As a teacher, I never feel nervous speaking to a roomful of high school students, but once a year in May I am asked to speak in front of a large audience on a stage with a microphone.  The speech itself is something I’m honored to give, but the fear I feel starts around January and becomes nearly debilitating by the end of April.  It is only a three-minute speech but my fear of it consumes months of my life.

People are always very supportive and try to be compassionate but usually the advice I get doesn’t help all that much.  If you mention you have this fear you will get a lot of guidance, but often I’m not sure if the people who give it really understand the parts of it that make it so terrifying.  It is an irrational feeling and most rational suggestions fail to address it in a way that is practical.  You get advice like “Try to imagine them all naked”.  If everyone in the audience were naked I’m sure I’d be even more terrified!  How could the thought of hundreds of naked humans staring at you be even remotely comforting?  Other people ask you “What’s the worst that can happen?”  They have no idea of the circus that your brain becomes for three minutes.  The worst that can happen is that you’ll be on stage giving the speech.  People simply can’t comprehend why a relatively simple act like this can cause such suffering.  I don’t really understand it myself.

The following is an attempt to describe the experience in real time.  Some of this will sound silly, but every single thought written down has gone through my mind on stage.  The goal of this piece is to create a running record of what stage fright actually feels like for me.

Alright, here we go.  Need another sip of water.  If you act confident, the fear won’t come.  Okay, time to stand up.  They just called me.  Fix my jacket.  Three buttons…how many should I button?  I need to keep it buttoned cause my tie is too short.  I look like Oliver Hardy.  Someone once told me leave the bottom unbuttoned.  Okay.  Here we go.  Don’t look up.  Don’t look up.  Just read.  You should make some arm gestures.  Just hold the podium.  Don’t fall.  Hands sweating.  The podium is see through.  Are the spots around my hand fogging up?  Do they see me sweating? Act confident.  Here it comes.  Here it comes.  I should have left them all unbuttoned.  I should have acted more confident.  Now IT is HERE. 

Hot.  What if I pass out?  Falling, hitting my head.  Would someone catch me?  I’m too big.  Where am I?  Did I just miss a line…no, no, I’m okay….page one is over.  Don’t look up.  They are all looking at you.  They are all looking at you.  Is my fly zipped?  Don’t look up.  Fast.  Dizzy when I look up.  Falling, hitting my head.  IT IS HERE.

Does what I’m saying make any sense?  Do they hear me?  I didn’t practice enough.  I practiced wrong.  Fast. I practiced too much.  What if I forget how to read?  Sweating.  Pain in the top of my head.  Antler pain.  I feel like antlers are going to sprout out of the top of my head.  Stay focused.  Where am I?  I am reading, but I don’t know how.  There is another me reading.   I don’t even know what the other me is saying.  Why are they laughing?  Did I say something funny?  Did I do something embarrassing?  I didn’t write that to be funny…what’s happening???

FOCUS!!!!  Antlers.  Sharp, sharp pain in the top of my head.  Halfway done.  Sweating.  What if I can’t breathe?  Slow down your breathing.  What if I can’t?  I don’t control my breathing.  Long way to go in this speech.  Lots of words left.  What if I start saying weird things?  What if I start shouting random nonsense?  NO CONTROL. What if I burp?  What if I start cursing?  What if I lose control of my body?  Sharp pain in my head.  Antlers are growing inside.  Will they pop out?

One page left.  Downhill, downhill, breathe, another minute…..breathe.  If I can just get one more page.  What am I talking about?  Where am I?  DON’T LOOK UP!!!!  THEY are watching you….breathe….breathe….you are going to fast…..no one understands….breathe….one paragraph now…..look up once…try it…..try it….dizzy….FOCUS….DON’T LOOK UP…..clapping…no more words….handshake….get to the chair….don’t fall….don’t pass out…get to the chair…..sit down…..breathe….

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  1. #1 by footballnutz17 on May 21, 2011 - 10:43 AM

    wow man, this is pretty cool, i dont normally speak on stage but when i have to perform for my band i get a little stage fright..

    However im sure its not even close to the feeling you get

    • #2 by Keith Spillett on May 21, 2011 - 10:58 AM

      Thanks! I don’t know how musicians do it! The thought of that scares me to death as well. I have a hard enough time staying in rhythm with no audience.

  2. #3 by Jim Wheeler on May 21, 2011 - 10:48 AM

    Keith,

    Outstanding post, but actually terrifying in itself. You have drilled down to its descriptive essence.

    I fully empathize with the feeling, and I think there is a rational basis for it too. If you don’t believe me, just ask Newt Gingrich, he of “right-wing social engineering” fame. 😀

    Jim

    • #4 by Keith Spillett on May 21, 2011 - 10:57 AM

      Ha! I’m sure Newt lost his fear of pubic speaking when he had his soul surgically removed back in the 1980s.

      Thanks Jim! The worst part of the thing is I really have tried nearly everything and I don’t have any hope it is going to get any better. Hopefully, I’ll at least stop thinking about growing antlers.

  3. #5 by sekanblogger on May 21, 2011 - 11:05 AM

    My Momma always told me that if I was afraid of what someone thought of me….
    it was probably closer to the truth that they don’t.

    Growing up playing trumpet, even in competition, I can relate.
    The nerves really show bad then. No hiding a badly missed high note!

    • #6 by footballnutz17 on May 21, 2011 - 11:12 AM

      Yea sekan, missed notes suck…especially if someone next to you plays the notes wrong, then you get blamed for it…….That sucks

  4. #7 by Jenn on May 21, 2011 - 11:39 AM

    Yup. You nailed that one 100%. Same thing for piano performance – except add sweaty hands that slide over keys too easy, and crowd noticing for sure all of the shaking limbs.
    Antlers was laugh out loud funny. Next time I’m called on to public speak, I know I’ll be thinking about them.

    • #8 by Keith Spillett on May 21, 2011 - 2:13 PM

      Thanks Jenn! The antlers thing has been freaking me out for years. It’s even more frightening during hunting season.

  5. #9 by John Erickson on May 21, 2011 - 12:16 PM

    I love the descriptions. Especially “antlers of pain” bit! Perfect mental image.
    I don’t have to publicly speak anymore, but back when I did, I was a speed machine. Teachers would have us clock our speeches, to make sure they were long enough. When just timing it, I’d be fine, but when I presented, I could do a 5-minute “calm” presentation in about 2 minutes 40 seconds! I once tore through a 15-minute presentation with a full 6 minutes 50 seconds left!
    The odd thing was, people understood me. They always looked shell-shocked, but could remember my points.
    Bizarre – that’s me! (As you can tell if you check out AFrankAngle! That’s how I got here, BTW.) 😀

    • #10 by Keith Spillett on May 21, 2011 - 2:14 PM

      I try to find comfort in the idea that they won’t remember what I’m saying!

  6. #11 by G-LO on May 23, 2011 - 9:08 AM

    Yo Keith!

    I cannot begin to tell you of the sheer terror that I have of public speaking. I’m ok reading someone else’s words (like when asked to read at someone’s wedding), but if I wrote it, forget it. I’d rather eat fugu from a street vendor! Presentations in college were an absolute nightmare for me. Would work out a deal whenever roped into a group project, i.e. I’ll do the spreadsheets and powerpoint slides, YOU do the talking!

    Thanks for sharing your feelings on the subject! Good to know I’m not the only one that gets this way.

    Cheers!
    G-LO

    • #12 by Keith Spillett on May 23, 2011 - 11:56 AM

      Doctor G-Lo!

      Several studies say that public speaking scares more people then dying. I once heard someone say that this means that the person giving a eulogy at a funeral is better off than the corpse. I can relate to this. Sounds like you can too!!!!

      • #13 by G-LO on May 23, 2011 - 10:48 PM

        Totally Man! Totally!

  7. #14 by afrankangle on May 23, 2011 - 11:01 AM

    First timer here. Good mix of honesty, imagery, and with a sense of humor. A bit of advice ….DRUGS …. see your doctor … DRUGS. Honestly, my wife is worse than you. See takes something before giving a presentation to a group of co-workers. Xanax?

    • #15 by Keith Spillett on May 23, 2011 - 11:39 AM

      Welcome to the neighborhood! Glad you dig it!

      I thought about getting something for it, but the last thing I need is to be drooling with a pair of antlers sticking out of my head.

      • #16 by afrankangle on May 23, 2011 - 1:11 PM

        My wife has said that it definitely relaxes her, but feel more tired than normal by the end of the day.

    • #17 by Otdo on May 24, 2012 - 12:36 PM

      At the risk of sounding yokel:I live in Idaho and when the deer, elk and moose begin to shed their antelrs (this time of year, actually) you can go out and collect them off the ground! It’s called shed hunting. Those large animals come down from the high country to winter in more temperate, lower elevations, and they shed their antelrs all over the place. Find a place where deer spend winter and you’re sure to find piles of antelrs in the spring — also a great excuse to get out and hike around a bit…

  8. #18 by The Alemonger on May 23, 2011 - 3:25 PM

    Hysterical.

    I’m a former trial lawyer and recovering litigator. I’m used to speaking in public and I’m giving a lecture at a national conference in a couple weeks. I’m usually fine and look forward to opening my mouth.

    Now I’ll be consumed with the thought of antlers sprouting from my head as I speak. Wait. Not really a bad thing. Been a long time since anything has sprouted from my head. Might actually look good. Need to pick a jacket that matches antlers. Human antlers. Should be more worries about something sprouting below the belt line. …

    @TheAlemonger

    • #19 by Keith Spillett on May 23, 2011 - 4:06 PM

      Ha!!! If you do happen to sprout antlers, please send me a video. I mean, that would be pretty cool to watch. Don’t send me a video if the other thing happens though!

  9. #20 by Mrs. Pibb on June 1, 2011 - 11:48 PM

    This one is one of my favorites, Keith.

  10. #21 by limpd on June 10, 2011 - 3:03 PM

    While I don’t mind speaking quite as much as you do, I have always wondered about the blinding pain I occasionally get in my skull. Sprounting Antlers! Brilliant!

    Sadly, I also get that you can be too big to fall. There are very few coworkers who could catch me without needing additional medical attention.

    • #22 by Keith Spillett on June 10, 2011 - 7:14 PM

      I told a friend of mine who studies anxiety about the antler pain and she was fascinated and never had heard of the symptom. Maybe you and I will end up in the DSM filed under “Antler Pain” or maybe we are descended from deer.

  11. #23 by Caroline on April 16, 2013 - 8:19 AM

    My experience is on a smaller scale. A lot smaller. And this is why it worries me.
    I work in the care sector for what you would call a five star care facility in Australia. I enjoy my work and the environment is outstanding. However when my manager suggested me training to become a assessor and mentor for the facility, passing on my knowledge and training to co workers and students I jumped at the chance. This is where I went down hill. I was booked on a manual handling and teaching techniques course for two days. I began to dread these two days arriving because I knew that although one day would be theory, the following day would be practical knowledge where I would be assessed to be a assessor. On the day, I became petrified, nervous giggles, clammy, dry mouth, a look of terror on my face and feeling uncomfortable and not confident . I was sure co workers didn’t understand what exactly I was going through and gave me support as in ” we’re all in the same boat” a and I remember thinking ‘nope you ain’t on the same boat as me’
    I felt ashamed because my way of coping with the terror I felt was to cry and I told myself I could not go on with the practical course and immediately voiced my concerns with my manager. She was very supportive but was sure the best way was to face that fear head on. I disagreed, but tail between legs returned to the training room, embarrassed because I’d obviously been upset, and carried out the tasks required of me, yes alittle wobbly but I ended up talking too much. I passed it. When I got home I felt deflated and even though I’d faced a huge fear, I felt ashamed that I got upset about it. So I didn’t come out from this experience feeling positive I’d passed, just wary that some day I’d have to repeat this all again for something else.

  12. #24 by Fear of Public Speaking on July 23, 2014 - 1:07 AM

    I think you did a really good job of explaing what is going through peoples minds who suffer from glossophobia when they get on stage. Keith if you are interested in learning more about how to cure your fear of public speaking have you tried http://curefearofpublicspeaking.com/ ? I frequently visit the site to look at guides and tips before my speeches!

    • #25 by Keith Spillett on July 31, 2014 - 1:39 PM

      I’m working on some things and I’ve really improved in this area since I wrote the piece, but I always can use help. Thanks for the link!

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