WOMAN ON THE VERGE: A few words on my fear of public speaking

March 7th, 2023 3:30 PM

By Emma Connolly

My slightly petrified self with Southern Star editor Siobhán Cronin at the Network West Cork event in Brookpark Business Centre where we shared tips on how to grab an editor’s attention. Thankfully there were no mics involved! (Photo: Anna Groniecka)

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Like lots of people, I have a serious terror of public speaking. Over the years I’ve developed all sorts of avoidance techniques to duck and dive having to take the mic, but for 2023 I’ve decided to feel the fear and do it anyway!

• YOU know when someone jokingly says that they’re unaccustomed to public speaking and then they launch into a smart and witty speech and end up having the room eating from their hand or being carried out shoulder high to rapturous applause? Yeah, well I hate that because I am genuinely unaccustomed to public speaking and will pretty much do anything I can including feigning illness, or changing my identity and moving continent, to get out of it. I know I’m only one of thousands who suffer from this fear, and to be honest I don’t even know why it started, but start it did. My first memory of being paralysed with terror in front of a group of people is when I was taking part in the Feis in secondary school when I was around 15. I can still recall sitting in the audience, waiting for my turn to walk up to the stage (it was really more like an elevated platform but it may as well have been Carnegie Hall) to perform my piece of prose and feeling like I might throw up or pass out. The room was spinning and I’ve no idea how I got through it but I remember one smart Alec remarking afterwards how my school skirt was trembling almost as much as my voice. Girls can be a bit mean like that. 

• It was the same when it came to reading at mass which we had to do in school as well. I wouldn’t sleep a wink the night before my turn and I’d arrive in the school chapel like one that was being sent to the gallows: deathly pale, with the fear of god in my eyes. I wouldn’t be worth a row of pins after it! I would race through it, barely give anyone time for the response, and scurry back to my seat, with my heart pounding in my chest. Actually a lot of my public speaking fears were centred around prayers as we also had to take it in turns to lead the rosary before tea time in school and I used to get so tongue-tied that I wrote the Hail Mary at the back of my homework journal so I wouldn’t forget it. On these occasions there was also the added challenge of people trying to make you laugh so getting as far as the ‘Glory Be’ without messing up was epic.

• Now obviously as I’ve got older I’ve got busier and more exhausted so my terror levels have abated a bit but still I will duck and dive situations where it’s all eyes on me. I live in fear of being on training courses, or team building days, where the leader goes around the room and asks everyone to introduce themselves. Amnesty International needs to get on board with that – it’s pure torture. My heart starts to race, my palms sweat, my voice shakes, and worst of all, I do that weird swallowing thing. You know where you gulp loudly after every few words and everyone starts to feel uncomfortable and look away and wonder if you’re having some sort of ‘episode’? Always me. 

• Anything that requires a mic or a pulpit I’ll give a wide swerve to, and that very much includes prayers of the faithful. Most people are dead chuffed if their pal or relative asks them to do one at their wedding. Not me. I’m literally devasted. I’d rather figure out the seating plan or write your thank you cards for you than do the ‘Lord hear us’ routine. Obviously my avoidance technique is never going to help me with this phobia, but it’s served me pretty well until now. Having said that I did give a little speech at my own wedding, only because everyone said I’d regret if I didn’t. To this day I don’t think I would have. And I’ve never listened to myself back on the DVD. 

• As for imagining everyone in the audience in the underwear? Never understood that nugget of advice either. That would only add to my terror, especially if their underwear is as dodgy as mine! But anyway, the reason I’m talking about any of this is that at the start of the year my editor Siobhán Cronin and I were asked to give a talk to the female business group Network West Cork, and while I could hear myself agreeing to it saying ‘yes that sounds like fun,’ my brain was saying ‘era that will probably never happen,’ or ‘I’ll figure a way out of that before the time comes.’ Well yes, the time did come around pretty quickly and last Thursday night I found myself sitting at the top of a room in Brookfield Business Park Dunmanway, wondering how I had let things get this far!

• It was a ‘double act’ with Siobhán who I knew could carry the gig, but still I could feel my heart rate increasing and if I had been wearing my green A-line school skirt I’m pretty sure it would have been quivering a little bit. But do you know what? That dreaded ‘floating out of body feeling’ didn’t descend and dare I say it, I actually enjoyed it. We were there to share tips on ‘how to get an editor’s attention,’ but the group actually did me all the favours. The vibe was friendly, encouraging and empowering which is what Network West Cork is all about – and to add to their credentials they can now claim to have cured me of my three decades-long fear! Hopefully it wasn’t for one night only or else I’ll have to hire them out for any future gigs. Although I think that’s me done for 2023. Baby steps and all the rest. 

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