It’s said that 10 percent of the population loves public speaking and gets a huge buzz being in front of a crowd. I get a buzz too, except it’s more like the flapping of carrion-eating vultures circling overhead waiting for me to die so they can dine.
I suffer from glossophobia, terror of public speaking. From the Greek “glōssa,” meaning tongue, and “phobos,” fear. (See also: Panic and Puking.) According to surveys, people’s top 10 fears include acrophobia (fear of heights), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), and clown-o-phobia (self-explanatory). Surprisingly, glossophobia ranks even higher than thanatophobia, fear of death. Which means, according to Jerry Seinfeld, when we attend a funeral, most of us would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy.
Where My Terror Took Root
I’ve felt like this forever, or at least since the fifth-grade spelling bee when I stumbled over the word “logorrhea,” and the entire school jeered. Elocution-challenged folks like me develop clever compensatory strategies to avoid speaking up, like cowering in the ladies room, pantomiming laryngitis, or scheduling lithotripsy, a medical procedure that breaks up a kidney stone.
I flirted once in my 40s with the thought of tackling my oratory aversion. But when I consulted a cognitive behavioral therapist, she used words like “thought suppression paradox” and “maladaptive.” She kept insisting, “Avoidance behaviors maintain anxiety.” So I avoided her. That decision didn’t make me anxious at all.
This dodging tactic served me perfectly well into my 50s. Then I wrote a family memoir. My publisher wasn’t doing much to promote the book, so naively I asked them to enroll me in a popular national book-tour program for authors. My publisher was surprisingly agreeable about shipping the 110 copies of my book required and even offered me warm words of encouragement: “Their standards are high; you’ll never get in.”
My Big Audition Opportunity
Luckily, I find that a soupçon of spite can be motivating, so I plowed through the application, blissfully unaware of what lay in store. The helpful folks at the book council weren’t just going to send my books around to a bunch of book clubs, as I’d thought. No. I had to audition. As in, stand up in front of an intimate gathering of 500 program directors who’d flown in from all over North America for the express purpose of test-driving 300 authors. They’d allot me exactly two minutes at the podium to deliver my pitch, which was more than enough time to do that deer-in-the-headlights freak-out thing I like to do.
By the day of the cattle-call, I was hyperventilating, waiting my turn to be judged on poise, wit, and whether I could rock a bikini bod. Well, maybe not that last one. In fairness, they weren’t running a Hot Middle-Aged Moms pageant. More like a sadistic combo of Tinder and Survivor.
I strode to the podium, wielding my index cards. I knew better than to do that thing they always tell you to do about picturing the audience naked. Why waste the energy when it was taking all I had not to pass out? I managed to talk for two full minutes without tossing my cookies, even though the experience was about as much fun as doing a colonoscopy prep, without the weight-loss perk.
Am I Really Going to Do This? (You Know the Answer)
This might be a good time to tell you about my former career. I used to be a book publicist. Yes, I know. Ironic. As a professional buzz builder, I subjected nervous writers to the very torture I was now facing myself. Karma. I’d made them do it, and now the joke was on me. Certain I’d bombed, I put the whole sorry experience out of my mind until five weeks later when the book council sent me a multi-city itinerary packed with a dozen speaking engagements. When I showed it to my husband, he hummed the theme from Jaws, then laughed. He’s supportive that way.
“Okay, fine, whatever,” I said, wringing my hands as I scrolled through my mental Rolodex of time-tested excuses. Organ donation? Bone spurs? The tour wouldn’t start for five months; was that enough time to grow a goiter?
But deep in my heart I knew if I didn’t seize the wonderful opportunity I’d been handed, I’d regret it. Laden with press releases, promotional swag, and a 90-day supply of the anxiety med Klonopin, I jetted across the country to libraries, schools, and community centers, fielding interviews, speaking on panels, and schmoozing my way state by state. I autographed books while people peppered me with questions like, “Is your memoir based on your own life?” “Where do you get your ideas?” and “Can I just get your book from the library?” I smiled gamely when a stocky fellow in a snug tee shirt that read “Body by Ben & Jerry’s” said, “Your book is well-written for a memoir.” As opposed to what? I wondered. A ransom note?
I was surprised that no one seemed to notice my deathly pallor before every single event. Or maybe they were too polite to mention the flop sweat. After a handsome local radio star interviewed me onstage, one of his fans gushed all over me. “You’re such a natural! You must do this all the time.” They didn’t know it was the Klonopin talking.
Finding My Rhythm
With each speaking engagement it got a bit easier. No danger of me getting cocky, though. Or even comfortable. At my very next reading, they stuck me in a basement classroom under a flickering fluorescent light and thoughtfully provided a rusted iron music stand pitched so steeply my cue cards kept skating off. Just as I was about to launch into my speech, the tech guy issued a stark warning: “No matter what happens, don’t touch that mike.”
Four minutes into my spiel, the ancient amplifier began blasting such ear-splitting feedback that half the audience shrieked and fled. For the next 23½ minutes, the tech guy continued to make frantic, futile adjustments. My vision started to tunnel, and I heard the tell-tale beating of buzzards closing in. Not today, Satan! I thought. Grimly I grabbed the throttle—not the mike— pulled out of the death spiral, plastered on my game face, and winged my way through to the finish. I cracked jokes. I answered questions. I sold three books. Which was two more than I sold in Scranton.
It was a breakthrough. Clearly I’d traded up for a better me. I’m still a hot mess whenever I have to take the stage, but now I understand the wisdom in that old saw about how what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s borne out by statistics. Three out of four people suffer from speech anxiety.
The fourth is dead.
Liane Kupferberg Carter is a New York-based essayist and author of the memoir, Ketchup is my Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism.