I had to perform in public as a child, singing with my family.
I hated it. HATED it.
My father could not understand this at all. I could sing, I liked to sing, so what was the problem?
If had been older than the six years old I was, my answer would have been, “because people are looking at me. I don’t like it when people look at me.” The same reason now I rarely post pictures of myself, or, if I post a musical performance, that it is typically an audio only file.
So, naturally, I became a public speaker by the time I was in my twenties.
Wait, what? Why?
I’m glad you asked, Mr. or Ms. Rhetorical Device… I’m glad you asked.
Fast forward from age six to age thirteen, where I am beginning eighth grade in an American Junior High School in the aptly named town of Niceville, Florida. I had tried marching band the year before, but didn’t really care for it, so I decided to try chorus in the current year. A couple of my new chorus friends, who were a year older — you see, in ninth grade, you could take two electives — were also in what was called “Speech and Debate”.
I didn’t really fit in that well with the chorus kids, because many of them were also cool kids, which at the time (and maybe still, for all I know) consisted of athletes and cheerleaders. So I was looking for a social sphere which felt more natural, and the “Speech and Debate” kids seemed a better match.
It wasn’t until the next year that I could join them, but I had already made friends who have been among my closest friends ever since.
Debate, itself, was kind of interesting, but I couldn’t say I ever really liked it. I was hyper-competitive, though, so any kind of competition was useful as an outlet. By the end of high school, three or four years later, I had become competition-adverse, so I left speech and debate behind when I went to college. Most of my friends, in the various colleges they went to, continued it in some way.
I had learned some things though. Like how to write a speech. I had also learned how to give one. For me, the trick was to be able to pretend I was having a conversation with just one or two other people. That was a manageable task for me. So I developed a style of public speaking that was conversational, relaxed, and based on convincing myself of a lie — that there weren’t a bunch of people there.
Nevertheless, I had now had enough practice at it, and at an age where I was at my most self-conscious, that I had learned how to do it. My speechwriting was pretty good: I remember a reasonably large competition where I came in second, only being beaten out by someone I had written a speech for.
But it wasn’t a skill I ever planned to use, as I had punched the “math major” button on my college application, preparing for a career as a professional introvert.
The ability lay dormant for years; there was no call for it in college, and when I started working in Civil Service for the Air Force as a cooperative education student, I was looking at a career in practical mathematics… not one that really involves any kind of public spotlight.
However, after graduation and being offered and accepting a full-time position, my interests began to shift. As I’ve recounted elsewhere, I had developed an interest in and love for the study of philosophy while I was in college, and I wanted to pursue that into graduate and postgraduate work.
It had been hard, but I had found something even less popular than being a mathematician.
Because I was studying German (with a tutor) and Latin and Greek (on my own) trying to prepare to apply at schools, people I worked with became aware of my interests outside mathematics and engineering. They already knew I played the piano, as I was still doing so, for money, on the side.
Which meant, by the canons of that time and place, that I was the closest thing we had to an extrovert, so I could start speaking for the team at meetings. So I did. And I fell right back into the casual, conversational speechmaking style I had learned in high school. And it went well… better than anyone expected.
Within a couple of years, I was spending half of my time doing presentations, sometimes for organizations I had almost nothing to do with. And that was fine: even though these sometimes involved very high ranking officials, in and out of Washington, DC, there was never more than twenty-five people in the room. So having pretending I was just having a one-on-one conversation wasn’t that far fetched.
I left civil service to become an actuary in my early 30’s. Working for an insurance company as a mathematician wasn’t going to involve much public speaking, I figured.
I was wrong.
It started out innocently enough: we were looking to recruit students from the local college, so they sent me as part of a team to give a recruiting pitch. One our senior actuaries (she eventually became the chief actuary) went first, then introduced me. I talked to them about how we have to go about solving problems by giving them an example to solve.
Not much to it, really.
When I walked off (we had brought along a recent graduate to bring the presentation home) she said, “you didn’t tell me you could do that.”
“Speak. In public. That was incredible.”
“Sure I did. It was on my resume.”
“Well, I missed it. You’re going to be doing all of these from now on.”
A few years after this, we are in a meeting talking about a new product the company is offering. My job is handling the mathematical concepts involved, but the company CEO likes how I word things. He wants me to present the product to the sales team.
That’s about 5,000 people. In a giant hotel gathering space.
Ok, I figure. There’s no way to really say, “I’d rather not,” (a) he’s the CEO; and (b) because I know I can do it. I just need to be prepared.
So I write a speech, get it approved by all the people who matter, then memorize it. I also add an intro and a finish after having the content reviewed, because I want it to be funny, and without surprise, humor can be difficult.
The meeting is in Nashville, and I’m pacing around the gigantic hotel complex at 3:00 in the morning of the day of the speech. I had been on stage the night before: there is a teleprompter, but with my eyesight, it’s worse than useless, because it’s distracting.
It’s the middle of the night, and I’m walking miles through this hotel, doing the speech over and over, because I’m a nervous wreck.
I am mathematician. These are sales people, they do this for a living.
They are going to crucify me.
And… they’ll be looking at me. Yeesh.
I step out on stage. The room is huge, and my face is all over the room on giant screens so that people in the back of the room can see me. I am using a portable wireless mic, because part of being conversational is not being stuck behind a podium. I take a breath, then deliver my opening line.
Part of speaking is establishing why anyone should listen to you in the first place. To a bunch of sales people, I’m making it clear up front that I know nothing about sales, that the product was designed by a team of sales people, whose names I mention. I talk about the process. I talk about the product.
I deliver a few more laugh lines interspersed throughout the presentation. I keep getting laughs, they are staying engaged.
I deliver the final line, get the biggest laugh, applause, leave the stage.
I lived through it. I didn’t embarrass myself.
“Thank God that’s over,” I thought.
It wasn’t over, of course. A week or so later, the surveys came back from attendees of the conference. I was the most popular speaker there, in a three-day slate of speakers, including two Heisman trophy winners and a professional motivational speaker.
Oh, no. I over-toggled, as we say.
I was always a nervous wreck before speeches. The crowds varied — 3,000 was a more typical crowd — and I varied my approach a lot from speech to speech. In kind of a weird predecessor to this blog, I did one speech talking about the illness I had in my twenties, similar to some posts I’ve done out here. I went serious instead of humorous, but the reaction was just as strong. My point wasn’t about me, it was about why people need insurance and the difference we could make in people’s lives.
People loved it. But I hated giving it.
At heart, I am an introvert, and all these years later, I still really don’t like people looking at me. But I was kind of stuck.
There’s nothing stranger than being good at something you don’t like doing. Because typically, we are only good at things we like, and vice-versa.
What eventually saved me was that I changed jobs. This job never involved audiences of more than 40 or so people, typically. I would occasionally get asked to present things or speak at other company functions with bigger audiences, but never again like it was. Thankfully.
The question I have most often gotten over the years is this: “When you know you are good at it, why don’t you enjoy it?”
The implication buried in that question seems to be this: that introverts are only introverted because they are worried about what other people think. Which isn’t true at all. Introverts are introverted for the same reason cats like fish, which is: just because. It’s the way we are made.
Incidentally, I think the question is backwards. Why do extroverts enjoy crowds? That seems like a better question, since I don’t understand that attitude at all. But the answer is probably “just because,” as well.
After every presentation, I would do the same thing: as soon as I could, I would return to total solitude: my car, my hotel room, whatever was available. And I would need about 3 hours to decompress for every half hour of speaking.
I started writing poetry as a way of siphoning off the stress of working, and because the circumstances of my life made music creation more difficult than it once was. Eventually, it took on a life of its own.
However, since I don’t have to face public speaking anymore, there is less stress than they’re used to be.
And these days, we will take all of the “less stress” we can get.