If you’re scared to death of public speaking, you’re hardly alone. Many surveys rank public speaking at or near the top of the list of our most pervasive fears, higher than death itself. To cite a Seinfeld routine, “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Not me. I love public speaking. I’ve dedicated much of my life to it and jump at the opportunity. I’ve officiated weddings, and I do eulogies at reasonable rates. Along with writing, it’s my thing.
Public speaking is my lifeline. It’s how I communicate and connect with people. Without it, I’d have to engage in one-on-one conversations, which, more often than not, I find horrific.
As a kid, I was extremely socially awkward. I spent a lot of time reading, listening to my Walkman and shutting out the world. I had a rich inner life, but I was afraid to invite anyone in. A few people got through my defenses, but a lot more gave up.
When I got my driver’s license, l volunteered for an overnight shift at a public radio station, which gave me a chance to share my world, try out bits and routines, and get feedback from an audience. I fell in love with it immediately. I felt like a minor deity.
I kept doing radio for many years, along with literary readings, performance art, and a lot of stand-up comedy. My current hobby is live storytelling, which gives me a chance to stretch out and be more vulnerable than I can in stand-up, which requires constantly sharking for laughs. I’ve worked hard at it, and I’m getting very good.
But it all falls apart when it’s time to make small talk with a stranger, or a friendly acquaintance, or almost anyone who’s not part of my elite platinum-club inner circle.
I’m not smooth. I’m not adept at chit-chat. I tend to be excruciatingly self-conscious and preoccupied with making a good impression, so much so that it’s hard for me to focus on other people’s actual experiences. When things get tense, I tend to fill the air with words, which often alienates people or creates problems for me when it turns out I don’t know what I’m talking about, which happens a lot.
My aversion to small talk can work in my favor. When I click with you, I can connect with you very deeply. If I trust you, I can cut through the crap and have deep, probing, intimate conversations well into the night. But if you leave me alone with your friends I don’t know well or heartlessly drag me to a professional networking event, I will be jittery and miserable, desperate to escape to the nearest stand-up open mic, where I can speak my mind freely.
Some of this may be hardwired into my personality. I’m an avoidant weirdo who uses his admittedly severe depression to protect himself from intimacy. I get stuck in my head, ruminating over the past or planning for the future. My brain tries to solve problems in ways that inevitably create new ones. When you speak, I have five different interpretations running in my head simultaneously, which makes it hard to focus, listen, and meet you where you are. I forget to breathe.
I channel this sense of isolation and frustration into writing and performance. When I can turn my own loneliness and insecurity into something other people can laugh about, it’s thrilling. It’s like alchemy. If the same people approach me after the show, I’ll probably be a babbling mess.
There are a few things that help. From my experience in improv, I learned how to “yes-and,” to accept what another person says and build on it. I’m also making a habit of getting curious about other people. I’m a fascinating sonofabitch, it’s true, but I’ve recently noticed there are a lot of other people around, too, and life can be a lot more mysterious, intriguing, and sexy when I can shut off my internal monologue long enough to explore their own inner worlds with them.
As I mellow out and accept myself with age, I have much more nourishing one-on-one conversations. In fact, I’d be happy to chat with you, after you come to see my show. It may be awkward, but we’re all scared, lonesome bundles of nerves who have a lot more in common than we realize. Be sure to get your tickets in advance.