Practicing What I Preach: Grappling With Fear at the Podium

Since the book came out, people have asked me: so, having written this book about fear, you must be really brave. My answer to that is: no, unfortunately understanding fear in a rational, logical way does absolutely nothing to help you maintain control over the powerful, ancient fear centers that lie deep in our brain.

This truth was brought home to me vividly yesterday as I stood up to give a talk at the Googleplex, Google’s corporate office in Mountain View, California.  They videotaped it, and I understand that they’re going to post it on Youtube.

After reading what happened next, you may not want to watch it.

Over the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about my book, and if anything I find that I usually have too much to say — I have to restrain myself from rambling on and on about this intriguing finding or that amazing tale of survival. So in preparing for the talk at Google I’d thought about what I wanted to say and written out a rough outline to jog my memory at the podium.

The problem with this plan: I hadn’t talked in front of a group this size before. Standing at a podium. Microphone in front of my face. Videocamera pointed at me. Seventeen (yes, I counted) faces turned expectantly toward me. And as the moderator turned over the floor to me, that old familiar feeling came back once again:

Oh, God.

Logically, I knew what was happening. Subconscious awareness of all these watching eyes was awakening my social fear response. My amygdala was on fire. My mouth was dry, my tongue sluggish. Worse, my brain was sludge. It was like going from cable modem to dial-up. The ideas just weren’t there. Or the words. I started to feel faint. I wondered: what if I totally lose it? What if I just pass out?

It was pretty awful. I looked at the faces of all these people who’d taken their lunch hour off to supposedly be enlightened or entertained by me, and I felt bad for them. This could not be very pretty to watch.

But another part of me was thinking: wow, I’m living a chapter right out of my book. That’s pretty interesting.

There was nothing to do but somehow keep plowing ahead. So I kept going. And the longer I went, the better I seemed to do. My speech became more fluid. The ideas came back. I was able to fit words around concepts. The fear receded, and my mind felt unchained. We got to the part where I opened the floor to questions, and it actually became fun. Somehow being forced to extemporize, to respond dynamically to what the other person was throwing at me, felt more like play.

The experience brought two lessons home to me. First, understanding fear does nothing, in itself, to help you control your feelings of fear. But, second, understanding your fear can help you prepare to do better in the future. Talking at Google made me appreciate the hurdles I’ll face next time I speak in front of a group. I’ll know what to expect, and won’t be caught off guard quite as much. And each time I repeat the experience, the fear will grip me a little less tightly. Before long,  the anxiety will be transformed into excitement. What was fearsome will become fun.

At least, that’s my hope. I’ll have to wait and see.

This post is not a great advertisement for Jeff Wise as a public speaker, but I hope that other people who have suffered through similar experiences will take heart and realize that their problem is not a fundamental part of who they are. The fear response is deep, mysterious, and powerful, but it can be managed. We can fight back, and we can take control.

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