Getting back in front of the crowd

Recently I was working with a client on an issue that's highly distressing but not uncommon: Fear of public speaking in the workplace.  It seems that his fear got so bad that while leading a high-stakes meeting, he actually panicked and walked out of the room.  Naturally, he was worried that this would happen again. As often happens, working with him got me thinking about some of my own experiences.  I began to reflect on an event that nudged me toward specializing in anxiety treatment.  I still remember it well: The time I had a crazy panic attack in front of an audience.

I was 23 years old, just a few years out of college, and I was teaching a GRE prep course for the Princeton Review in Boston.  It was the first day of class, which was being held at Harvard's JFK School for Public Policy, a swanky and somewhat intimidating setting.

I had taught SAT classes for high schoolers before, and I had given lots of speeches and presentations in college, but this was my first time getting paid to teach adults, many of whom were older than me.  I felt like I had to do it well.

It started out okay. The first ten minutes or so went smoothly, as I introduced myself and led the class through a cheesy icebreaker exercise.

And then it happened. I began to be aware of the sound of my own voice, and how it sounded a bit high-pitched and reedy.  And I started to think that the audience was noticing, too. I tried to make it sound more, shall we say, normal. It didn't work. I got distracted. I forgot what I was going to say. My heart started racing. I froze up.

"I  need to call the office now," I blurted out, and I bolted from the room to the hallway outside.

I wondered what my students were thinking. I assumed they knew exactly what was happening and were probably thinking the worst of me, the instructor who was too freaked out to teach them anything. I stood there with my hands on my knees like a free-throw shooter. Hours seemed to pass, though it was probably only five minutes. I wanted more than anything to flee the scene, run away, quit the teaching  job, and just stay home.

Instead, I took a deep breath and went back into the room. I expected awkwardness. I thought the students would be annoyed and demand an explanation. After all, they paid a lot for that class and certainly wouldn't tolerate a teacher who just leaves unexpectedly.

Instead, they were smiling and trading jokes, chatting on their phones, or leafing through the materials. If they were upset, they sure didn't show it. It was as if my own anxiety was a  much bigger deal to me than it was to them. It was as if they didn't even know I was anxious--which, of course, they didn't. Why would they?

I cleared my throat, smiled, and started speaking again. After a few minutes, I hit my stride, got comfortable, and the class went off without a hitch. Crisis averted.

The following year, I went off to grad school.  There I learned all about anxiety and panic, and how to understand and treat them from a cognitive-behavioral perspective. I gained a whole new framework for understanding anxiety  as an experience that is fundamentally workable. Though it may feel really unpleasant and awful, anxiety can be harnessed, and it can actually improve performance.

Since my unceremonious escape from that classroom, I've had the occasion to speak in front of audiences at least a few hundred times.  I've given speeches, taught classes, led workshops, and even earned my Competent Communicator manual at Toastmasters.  I absolutely love public speaking.

Still, I get nervous sometimes. My heart still races when I'm being introduced. But I know I can handle it, and so I see it as a thrill, and not a threat. The anxiety is all part of the deal, and I'm okay with it.