Two days ago I would have told you that I do not get nervous about public speaking. I do it for a living. I am used to it and have a certain confidence about my ability to convey a message to an audience. I am so confident, in fact, that I coach other people on how they can be better public speakers.

But, two days ago, I was making introductory remarks for a series of presentations on a variety of topics and I froze. I forgot what I was going to say. It left me. I blathered for a few seconds and then found my footing (sort of) and finished it out. It was particularly humbling because the upper echelon of the institution were in attendance, and I had just spent the last several months training the presenters on the fundamentals of public speaking, which included how to keep your cool and not panic.

And yet, there I was panicking like a rookie. It was awful.

The actual presenters did well and afterward everyone was gracious and complimentary about the event. I however, was a wreck, and I still am a bit.

Here’s what I did about it, and what I’m doing about.

That evening I had a glass of wine… OK, two glasses of wine. Four glasses of wine. I had four glasses of wine. But they were those ridiculously tiny Solo wine cups you get at open bars, so really it was like one at-home glass of wine.

Anyway, afterward, I talked to my wife, hugged the kids (and my wife), and we all went to bed early. The next day, I got up, went to the park, put on some classic rock, and ran that shit off.

Not a prescription for everyone, but whatever. It took some of the sting out of it. Now I’m calling it out—looking at what the hell happened and being honest with myself in terms of where I failed. And yes, I failed. Admitting that is the first step, which is oddly difficult even when (maybe especially when) it’s obvious.

If I’m making excuses, there was the fact that this was a highly unusual situation in which there was a lot at stake for many people. There were also an unusually high number of variables that were not in my control that I was keenly aware of while I was busy taking care of administering and hosting the event and taking control of all the variables that were in my control.

Never sacrifice authentic in the pursuit of better.

But if I’m going to be brutally honest, my ego got in the way. I was in charge and I have the skills and experience to run an event like that without breaking a sweat (me being brutally honest). I tried to manage everything in my head and when I got up to speak, I acted like I was beyond the fundamentals.

No one is beyond the fundamentals, least of all me. Eventually you may be able to break the rules, but you always have to have the fundamentals in the back of your mind.

What should I have done? Let go of all that stuff that was not in my control, gotten help with the stuff that was in my control, and presented in an authentic and organic way. Instead I was forcing it; trying to be the model of the ideal public speaker; an example for all who were to follow.

To that end, I had practiced the same lines over and over again, blocking my performance to a T, and reciting my speech in my head whenever I had a spare moment. Yet, when the time came for me to deliver, I had way more on my mind than those damned lines, and some cosmic hiccup nudged me ever so slightly off course and I was a goner. I could feel myself start to lose my footing and instead of taking a beat to get my bearings, I tried to play it off and leap over to some other foothold only to find that there was nothing there for me to grab hold of. I was left floundering in mid air.

So, where do you go from here—after you have tripped over your own ego and landed on your face?

You recognize it as a learning experience, analyze how it happened, and figure out how you can keep it from happening again. For me part of the answer is never again to try to recite. Remember my points, but get the message out naturally.

But the bigger lesson is to stay humble. There are hotshots out there, yes, who are supremely confident and can pound their message into an audience. Kudos to them. Serious. It’s a gift. But that ain’t me. What’s more, I don’t want it to be me.

The number one fundamental rule in public speaking (as in life) is be yourself. Never sacrifice authentic in the pursuit of better. Sometimes, that takes great courage. Usually, it takes great courage. Which is why people so often are eager to forget it. Sometimes we forget who we really are.  When that happens, the universe has a way of giving you a swift kick in the ass to remind you to be you.

Which brings me to the one true lesson of this whole post: Listen to the universe. She’s the only one who really knows what she’s doing.

5 Comments on “A Public Speaker Comes Clean

  1. Been there, done that! As an adjunct professor who teaches public speaking (I have spoken many times to non-profits, church groups, political groups, etc.) I have been hooked on it since my first oral book report in the 5th grade. I always tell my students, “Don’t get cocky…the confidence can leave you at any time, leaving you a bumbling fool.” I appreciate the honesty!

  2. “Never sacrifice authentic in the pursuit of better.”
    Love this. I would like to quote you in my slides. How would you like me to attribute you?

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