The Believer February 2007
Last year I saw a therapist who tried to teach me how to talk really loudly. She made me stand up and say my name with abandon, “so the plants on the porch can hear!” I was beginning a teaching job and the idea of speaking in front of a group filled me with childlike panic. We worked on envisioning my anxiety as a boat that was drifting away. She held my arm in her hands and counted down from ten, doing some “light hypnotism.” She began to act somber and her eyes became disturbingly enormous. “It’s normal to feel nervous,” she whispered. “Everyone feels nervous. But you don’t have to. Why bother?”
Her office was on the top floor of a Fifth Avenue townhouse and had a ceiling window, a bed, and a large bowl of special-looking rocks. When I told her I wanted to be a writer, she said, “Oh my god, I love writing. I took a class with Michael Cunningham in Italy!” and pulled one of his books off her shelf and made me look at it. Then she told me to practice projecting a few frequently used words like hello, really, do, go, right, and great. She made me stand up and introduce myself to an imaginary class several times. “No one really listens closely to what we say,” she said, as encouragement.
My mom found the therapist for me after I got hired to teach a course called Verbal Communications. The job was at a junior college in Manhattan known for its advertisements on subways: images of handsome people in suits, shaking hands and networking. Originally, I was supposed to teach writing, but there was a department shortage and the dean, who was desperate for teachers, asked me to take on public speaking instead. “Speaking and writing—it’s really the same principle,” she said. I nodded and told her I’d done oral reports in high school. I didn’t tell her that I did these reports by rapidly reading my note cards in a small, strained voice without looking at anyone. She handed me the course textbook, Public Speaking: Connecting You and Your Audience.
The book opens with a flood of reminders that it’s OK to be nervous. The authors quote a statistic that I’ve now read in more than a dozen different books and articles: more people are afraid of public speaking than of death. They tell a story about a girl who lived in Indiana and was so bad at talking that when she wanted pizza, she made her mom, who lived in New York, order it for her. The book’s suggestions for dealing with speaking panic include doing away with “Inappropriate Self-Expectations,” and tensing and then relaxing a muscle of your choice (“Isometric Exercise”). The authors present the calming notion that if you read the lesson closely, study the vocab, and answer the questions at the end of the chapter (“Will moderate communication apprehension help or hinder your speech? Why?”), you will get over this disorder.
Most of my students were in their mid-twenties, business majors, and uninterested in taking the class, which was mandatory. The hypnotist told me to do something physical (as opposed to verbal) when I entered the room, so I told the students to rearrange the desks in a circle. Then I made them go around the room and talk about how they feel when they’re asked to speak in public. Their anxiety seemed to have an inverse relation to mine. Hearing all their familiar symptoms was perversely heartwarming: red face, pounding heart, too much saliva, awkward laughing, trembling hands, breathing problems, sudden urge to visit the bathroom. One girl said she’d already enrolled in the class once, but dropped it because “I wasn’t in a place where I could deal with it yet.”
I felt calm enough to be the center of attention so I went to the whiteboard and began making a list called “How to Conquer Anxiety.” James, a confident guy who gave people high-fives when he entered the room, said he felt bad admitting it, but he didn’t have much trouble talking to groups; he came from a long line of preachers. The only strategy he could think of was to prepare. I wrote it on the board. Another person said “deep breathing” and someone shouted “make a joke” so I wrote these down too. I felt giddy with my ability to handle the moment. Wilson, who wore tinted Oakleys and wrote suicidal poems with no grammar, suggested praying. He soon became my favorite student. After the second class, I asked him to take off his sunglasses, and he wrote me an email explaining the situation: “I’m sorry I didn’t take off the glasses I really was too nervous to look at someone directly eye to eye so therefore I kept the glasses on but you’re right that really wasn’t professional I wasn’t thinking and I apologize for doing that its just that as soon as I see so many faces I start to choke & stutter but this just shows me that my shyness can’t intervene.”
About halfway through the term, I stopped making the students read Public Speaking: Connecting You and Your Audience and began assigning excerpts from self-help books. My favorite was Dale Carnegie’s 1962 The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking (published by his wife, after he died). He made talking seem so simple and silly. A former farmer and failed novelist from Missouri, he encourages people to keep old socks on their desks to remind themselves how limp and relaxed they should be. “If you find yourself talking in a stilted manner, pause and say sharply to yourself mentally: ‘Here! What is wrong? Wake up! Be human.’”
Carnegie appealed to my students’ impulses toward gossip and drama. “There is nothing so interesting to ourselves as ourselves,” he wrote. He believed that all speakers should begin their presentations in loud and splashy ways, like whistling or screaming or tossing cigars to the crowd. He tells the story of one orator who opened his speech by shooting a pistol—but this was too much, Carnegie concluded. It’s important to get the proportions right: a juicy detail right at the beginning is just enough. A grand and general intro is pure boredom:
For example, I recently heard a speaker begin like this. “Trust in the Lord and have faith in your own ability…” A preachy, obvious way to begin a talk! But note his second sentence; it is interesting; it has heartthrob in it: “My mother was left a widow in 1918 with three children to support, and no money…” Why, oh why, didn’t that speaker begin in his first sentence by telling about the struggles of his widowed mother with three little children to support!
After assigning Carnegie, I worried (and maybe secretly hoped) that public speaking class would turn into therapy time. But the students were reluctant. Even when they wrote personal speeches, they tended to edit out the most intimate details at the podium. One girl, who spoke English tentatively, wrote a speech about drunk driving that began with a story of her brother’s death in a car crash. When she gave the speech, though, she omitted the accident. After class, I asked her why, and she shook her head and said it was “too touching.”
For Carnegie, emotions were beside the point. Public speaking was a performance of sincerity; if you actually felt sad about the things you were describing, that was a perk. “Acting in earnest will make you feel earnest,” he used to say. Carnegie was open about his own social failings. He was neither charismatic nor happy—he worried that when his depressed father didn’t come home at night, they’d find his body in the barn, “dangling from the end of a rope”—and his solution was to smile and be bubbly. “I realize now that healthy people don’t write books on health,” he wrote in a letter to his local newspaper. “It is the sick person who becomes interested in health.” His fascination with social interactions, which culminated in his 1936 best seller How to Win Friends and Influence People, turned pleasing others into an issue of mechanics. “Personality is a vague and elusive thing,” he wrote, “defying analysis like the perfume of a violet.”
In training centers all over the country, Carnegie instructors teach their students to set goals for their image. Usually this means acting bigger, louder, and looser. The technique is simple: if you’re nervous, pretend that you’re not. Carnegie made public speaking—once reserved for religious and political authorities—appeal to undistinguished nine-to-fivers. The practical possibilities in oration were apparent to my students from the beginning. When I asked them to go around the room and come up with the most gripping first sentence they could think of, about half of them recited variations on the same theme: Do you want to know how to make a million dollars in a day? Even the shy students seemed more poised as they talked about getting rich.
We watched a tape of the second presidential debate between George Bush and John Kerry, and most of the class could agree that Bush was Carnegie’s kind of man: an unimpressive, ordinary guy who speaks in short, declarative sentences and is unafraid of manual labor. We turned the volume down so that all we could note were the gestures: Kerry was elegant and relaxed. Bush looked overexcited. He pointed fiercely at the moderator and stepped forward with each statement like a jumpy boy. He smiled enthusiastically when Kerry accused him of owning a timber company. “That’s news to me,” he said. “Need some wood?”
In her 1976 book Freeing the Natural Voice, Kristin Linklater writes that the art of elocution is reaching a dead end: “The fear of indulgence has virtually deprived us of a serviceable form through which to communicate.” To avoid phoniness or extravagance, we talk plainly, as if we’re perpetually in the mode of “making appointments, exchanging news, shopping,” she writes. Carnegie’s theories helped usher in this obsession with bare-bones earnestness. He convinced people that they didn’t have to be particularly brilliant to command an audience. Being too intellectual or imaginative was off-limits because people distrusted such qualities. Speaking, Carnegie said, should be “practical as the automobile, direct as a telegram, businesslike as a telling advertisement.”
Most of my students assumed a tone of waxen friendliness when they stepped up to the podium. They’d gesture a little too theatrically and say “Good afternoon, my name is ———!” long after everyone knew each other. They’d bring in gigantic visual aids like computer keyboards and volleyballs and salad bowls and point to them only once. At the end of the speech, they’d ask for questions and then walk away without looking to see if anyone had raised a hand. We’d all be clapping. We clapped no matter what anyone said, as long as they said something.
I learned the applause technique from Toastmasters International, the largest speaking club in the world (with more than two hundred thousand members in ninety countries). The dean who hired me suggested I join the club so I could adopt some of their teaching methods. Several of her former speaking instructors had sat in on meetings, and she’d never heard of a place where everyone was so friendly, she said. I had a feeling she hoped Toastmasters would improve my own speaking skills as well—during the first interview, she gently noted that I was more soft-spoken than most instructors—but we pretended I was going as teacher, not student.
I attended several sessions of a club in Brooklyn Heights with a reputation for particularly active members. The treasurer, Bruce Schaffer, clapped so loudly that he sat in the last row of chairs in the room so he wouldn’t hurt people’s ears. He told me (after politely inquiring whether he should speak in “short, Hemingway sentences or long, flowery, Kerouac ones” for the interview) that being a Toastmaster for the past eleven years had changed his personality and improved his law practice. “I start my day feeling stronger and more powerful,” he said. In the morning when he wakes up, he sometimes yells as loudly as he can into a towel.
Toastmasters meetings usually begin with a pledge of allegiance to the American flag. Then the Jokemaster tells a joke, and the Wordmaster gives the word of the day—easy ones like joy and collaboration. The first portion of the meeting is devoted to impromptu speaking, and the results are pleasantly idiotic. Members have one minute to respond to random questions like, “Do you feel it is necessary to drink eight glasses of water a day?” or “You are what you eat—agree or disagree?” They struggle for words, clench the lectern, fidget, reveal sweat spots under their arms, and return to their seats suddenly. A designated Grammarian tallies how many times people say “uh,” “um,” “like,” “er,” “you know,” “well.”
At one of my first meetings, I was asked to answer the question “What’s your favorite summer holiday?” I immediately knew my answer (July 4), but all I could do was say, in a tiny, child’s voice, “Do I have to? Can I wait for later?” The Toastmaster officer said yes, but seemed uncomfortable with my request. I soon learned that everyone tries, even if all they can do is go up and whisper a sentence. I felt like I’d ruined the mood. As I left the meeting, a middle-aged man caught up to me and shook my hand. “We’re all in the same boat,” he said. “Don’t believe anyone who says they’re not nervous.” When he asked how I learned about Toastmasters, I was too ashamed to tell him I taught public speaking.
Toastmasters invents the circumstances for ordinary people to speak forcefully and authoritatively to a silent, adoring crowd. To become a “Competent Toastmaster,” members must give ten prepared speeches, each with a specified length and style. Each member then receives an oral evaluation. Those who show talent (and have bigger goals than getting over stage fright) move on to compete against other clubs, divisions, districts, regions, and finally, every August, the best ten speakers gather for the World Championship of Public Speaking. “It’s like American Idol, except no one cares,” says Rory Vaden, one of the 2006 contestants, who, at twenty-three, made the unusual decision that Toastmasters could bring him fame. “I woke up in the middle of the night, and it was like, boom: You are supposed to pursue the World Championship of Public Speaking. You are supposed to become the youngest champion ever.”
A professional sales trainer and fitness model from Colorado, Vaden rarely gets nervous about speaking. “I’m too excited. You know when you buy a gift for a really close friend? You’re at the store and you’re like, ooh, this person will love this. You wrap it up for them. You can’t wait to give it to them because you know they’re going to love it. That’s how I feel when I’m preparing a speech.” Last fall, Vaden started making a documentary about his quest for the championship. “I talk to the camera, right before and after I go on stage,” he told me, a month before the event. “There’s some genuine footage of me crying in my car when I felt like my speech was horrible and I was going to blow it. Now that I’ve made it to the finals, I’m pretty sure the documentary is going to be a product. If I win, it could almost be a Disney movie.”
At the local level, each speaker works on boosting his or her own confidence; at the international competitions, it’s all about empowering the audience. The most successful speakers take a Carnegian approach to trauma: a harrowing story leads to an inspiring conclusion. In August, I went to the World Championship in Washington, D.C., and sat down with Ed Tate, the 2000 world champion, who showed me a careful chart he’d made of each contestant’s strengths: he noted with roman numerals the number of times the speakers made the audience laugh and giggle (he kept a separate list for each). He also underlined each speech’s moral lesson. Usually this was conveyed in three or four words: stay youthful, be kind to strangers, express yourself, remember your roots, set goals, accept your weaknesses, don’t accept your weaknesses.
As I talked to several finalists, I noticed how smooth and personable they were in conversation. They’d say, “That’s a great question, Rachel,” or “Here’s my opinion, Rachel…” They shook my hand hard and never seemed bored. I left the interactions feeling smarter. Tate said that he knew at least three world finalists (including himself) who were former stutterers. It’s as if they’d become addicted to conquering their fear. In his 2004 Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton describes people as leaking balloons, “forever requiring the helium of external love to remain inflated.” “There is something at once sobering and absurd,” he writes, “in the extent to which we are lifted by the attention of others and sunk by their disregard.” Motivational speakers are constantly repackaging their own embarrassments and disappointments for the enjoyment of the audience. They tell stories about depression, alcoholism, poverty, medical problems, social failings. “Look how vulnerable I can let myself be!” they seem to say. That’s one way of guarding against rejection; the other way (my way) is not speaking at all.
The World Championship, which marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of Toastmasters, was held in a giant, shiplike auditorium at the Hilton Washington Hotel with almost two thousand people in attendance. I sat behind the timers, who turned on green, yellow, and red lights so the speakers could pace themselves. At the slightest intimation of a joke, the female timer would exchange glances with the male timer and then throw her head back in laughter. She didn’t let any goofy remark go unrewarded. Jock Elliott, the only contestant from Australia, summed up the mood of the event well in his seven-minute presentation, “Oscar Night.” He moved around the stage rapidly, giving trophies to “stars” in his life, like his great-great-grandfather. “It’s Oscar Night in Washington, D.C.,” he said, “and we shall seek the real hero amongst the ordinary people.”
My favorite speaker was Vaden, who presented himself as a kind of prophet. (Vaden had planned his speech so carefully that, in the written copy of his presentation, nearly every other sentence included a note for what kind of expression he should make: “[flinch]” “[nod]” “[squint]” “[facial]”). Looking especially boyish and tan, he told the audience how on August 26, 2005—exactly a year before the speech contest—he was driving to visit his sick grandma and almost died when he crashed into a cow. It was his fate to deliver this speech one year later, he said. He spoke clearly and passionately: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is where my story, Grandma’s story, and your story all connect… You were all part of the plan for me…. Grandma teaches us to stop asking why and just have faith.”
It’s a rare thing to watch someone declare their destiny before it happens, and I got so caught up in Vaden’s logic that I forgot he might lose. When the judges came back with their decision, I stared at Vaden’s smooth, dimpled face. He looked at the floor and held his hands together. The contest chair announced third, second, and first places—his name wasn’t called. He looked up, clapped politely and smiled. The winner, Ed Hearn, a minister and criminal defendant from Chicago, had given his presentation about his favorite childhood toy, a broken punching bag. We all need a strategy for “bouncing back,” he said.
As people left the auditorium, I met up with Vaden, who was shaking fans’ hands and smiling for pictures. He told me he hadn’t felt emotionally connected to the audience. “I literally gave that speech a hundred times and had more than a thousand people evaluate me. I did everything I could do, but I didn’t have that intuitive feeling,” he said. He looked thoughtfully at my notepad. “I’ll probably be forever known as the guy with the cow speech. I wanted the cow to be a symbol of the tragedy we all face. I hope, at least, people will remember my message.”
Toastmasters clubs work on cultivating a pleasant, homey atmosphere where all speeches are considered innately special. Many chapters are set up in boardrooms, churches, or classrooms, and, for those scarred by the shame of having once given a horrible presentation, it becomes possible to rewrite the experience. Seasoned Toastmasters look delighted no matter who is speaking: they nod, sigh, and smile at the appropriate moments.
Lee Glickstein, founder of Speaking Circles International—a younger, smaller, more informal version of Toastmasters—calls this type of feedback “explosive listening.” “We were wounded when we stopped trusting ourselves,” he writes in his 1999 book Be Heard Now! To promote sincerity, he moves away from the Carnegian idea that the best speakers are actors. He encourages students to stare in the mirror for a few minutes every day and get to know themselves—be “vibrantly vulnerable,” “turn nervousness—into nirvana!” “OLD MYTH: public speaking is about mastering PERFORMANCE,” he writes. “NEW REALITY: public speaking is about EXPRESSION OF OUR AUTHENTIC SELVES.”
But in many situations, our “Inner Speaker” is not welcome. It’s not always possible to close the gap between what we say and feel. Long before Carnegie, public speaking was associated with duplicity. The Greek word for both oration and acting was hypokrisis, and as a public speaking teacher, I was the ultimate hypocrite. In a quiet voice full of “like’s” and “you know’s,” I told my students to be forceful and direct. While encouraging eye contact, I’d look down at my desk and play with a pen so devotedly that the cap would fly out of my hands. I tried to avoid speaking for more than a few minutes at a time. Once I realized people were listening to me, I’d start wondering whether I was being clear or overenthusiastic or pronouncing things correctly. If I had something important to say, I’d type it up as a handout and ask a volunteer to read it aloud.
The students were so preoccupied with figuring out when they’d have to speak and how their peers would judge them that they rarely bothered to question my authority. They were jittery on speech days. No one wanted to go first or last; everyone wanted to go third or fourth. Before they spoke, they often slipped off to the bathroom to compose themselves. I sometimes noticed their lips moving, rehearsing, while they waited their turns.
Many students showed signs of improvement from week to week, but the few with extreme anxiety, like me, only learned better techniques of pretending. After barely getting through his first presentation, Wilson forfeited eye contact altogether. He’d read his speeches word for word in a quiet, elliptical voice that sounded like a whispered song. I could catch every eighth word or so. “I just wish I had the same talent when it comes to verbal communication,” he wrote me in an email late in the term, after I’d complimented his poetry. “For example James—he’s a very great speaker its like it’s just part of his mannerism and I love how everything is just natural with him but it just comes to show that everyone has their ups & downs at one thing or another.”
I, too, began thinking of the gift of public speaking as inexplicably awarded to some and not others. At Toastmasters meetings, I’d take careful notes on voice technique and hand gestures, but never thought of absorbing them myself. I just passed the suggestions on to my students. I quickly became uninterested in becoming a good speaker; it was like becoming a good astronaut. It wasn’t going to happen. I began to feel more comfortable in class, but as soon as I got into a new situation, the anxiety returned. When I was called on at Toastmasters the second time—“What are your hobbies?”—my chest was visibly moving. I couldn’t get enough air. I said, “I like to play tennis?” I stared at an old woman with frizzy gray hair who nodded. My voice was high and airy. “I don’t get to play tennis a lot so I really hope to play more tennis soon.” Everyone clapped.
Most Toastmasters have a story about someone who sobbed through their first speech and then couldn’t be dragged from the stage. When the transformation wasn’t happening for me, I found comfort in the idea that the anxiety could simply be a matter of genetics. “About 20 percent of the population have severe communication apprehension and there’s not a whole hell of a lot they can do about it,” James McCroskey, a professor at the University of Alabama who’s studied this problem for the past thirty years, told me. He began his career believing the fear was taught, and then shifted tracks. Now he believes biology is more important than learning processes. “We thought our parents scared us when we were little kids. We had wonderful theories, but the problem is they weren’t true.”
My therapist’s theory was that speaking anxiety is an accident of evolution: we still interpret being separated from the crowd as a danger. I called her six months after our last appointment (I stopped going after the third session) and told her I was writing an article about public speaking but hadn’t conquered the fear. She was disappointed. “We’re really much more primitive than we think we are,” she said, as consolation. “These feelings are no longer helpful to us, the way that the appendix or tailbone is no longer helpful to us. But these things once had a purpose. It’s not that we’re nuts.”
Her theory is not an established one, but I liked it. If speaking anxiety is an inherited instinct, I can stop trying to rationally talk down the fear. When I’m forced to speak out in front of a group, I often repeat in my mind a variation of what the hypnotist told me: It doesn’t matter, no one’s listening. Other times I try a firmer approach: Everyone else can do this. Don’t be so stupid. A fellow Toastmaster once described an image he turns to in moments of extreme self-doubt: he visualizes himself removing his brain from his body and throwing it away like a Frisbee.
In the classroom, feeling self-conscious about the subject I was teaching was, at times, strangely effective. On the last day, a few students told me Verbal Communications had been their favorite course. I taught composition the next term and there wasn’t the same intimacy. When people turned in sloppy papers, I couldn’t empathize with the dilemma as thoroughly as I could when they had awkwardly stood at the podium, their voices shaking. As a writing teacher, I exerted some authority; with public speaking, I was just a hopeless guide. I’d halfheartedly pass on standard nuggets of advice that didn’t seem particularly true: “Everyone in the audience wants you to succeed!” Or “No one knows how nervous you are.” Then I’d hear students adopt the mottoes themselves. Wilson once said, “I just have to remember that no one can tell how nervous I am.”
In the past, I’ve rarely felt that what I wanted to say was interesting enough that it was worth the sweating and chest tightening. (In high school history class, I used to whisper questions to my boyfriend and he’d ask the teacher for me.) But here I was regularly sharing mediocre opinions about a subject I was bad at. I’d leave the class elated. The more the students trusted my words, the more I wanted to talk. The origins of my anxiety seemed a lot less complicated than previously believed. The 20 percent of the population who feel sick when they stand up in front of a crowd want to be heard and adored just as much as the Rory Vadens of the world. Speaking is risky: the idea that no one’s listening may be the scariest part of all.