There are usually only two types of conversations that happen after I get off stage. Most people just give you a typical, “Good show” as they pass. You shake hands, sell a few books, and let that human stream trickle onward. Usually when there are stragglers, they’ve only straggled to tell you a joke of their own. It’s always badly told, usually racist, and is unsolicitedly followed by, “You can use that in your next act.”
Yeah. I’ll get right on that, Jeb.
The second types of folk hang around to express their disbelief. “I could never do what you do.”
Public speaking beats death on the fear chart. Everyone knows that statistic. Talking in front of strangers is terrifying according to all conventional wisdom, though I don’t think that diagnosis is all that accurate.
I think the biggest crowd I’ve played for was somewhere around 3,000 people. It’s not giant, but it’s a respectable amount, certainly enough to be daunting. I, however, remember being the same amount of not-very-nervous as I am before a regular show for two or three hundred. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I was anything other than the good kind of nervous (the anticipation kind, not fear), before a show.
It’s probably been 15 years since I was scared to tell jokes.
So years ago when I went to speak in front of my hometown’s City Council to argue about the smoking ban (an outdated fight that just looks silly in hindsight), the last thing I was concerned about was stage fright. I got to the podium in front of seven council members and maybe 15-20 onlookers, and I, who can comfortably talk for an hour in front of thousands, heard my voice crack when I finally opened my mouth.
In fact, I forgot absolutely everything I had planned to say. My hands felt like a Coke commercial. I don’t know why that‘s what I see every time I think about something being wet. I think of condensation on Coke bottles in commercials, and it makes for a pretty poor analogy (but great for alliteration it would seem). Picture your favorite wet thing here, I guess.
The point is, my palms were really sweaty. It was a nightmare.
It did trigger the realization, though, that stage fright has very little to do with being in front of people and everything to do with your confidence in what you’re talking about. Jokes are easy. I’ve told some of them, literally, a thousand times. I’ve written, memorized, rehearsed, and performed them ad infinitum. Of course I’m not scared.
I’d be willing to bet a good sum that a lot of those people that stop to tell me they could never do what I do have had to give a presentation, or host a training seminar, or some other such activity at their own jobs in the recent past. They were just masters of that subject so it didn’t feel intimidating. But that’s different! It’s really not.
It’s just confidence in a different set of words. That will always be the only difference. Some people are most composed when they sing. For me it’s my jokes. It might be dividends or karaoke or tractor parts, but we all have a thing that we could confidently present because we know that thing intimately. If we learned anything else that well, we could go on about it in front of strangers too. We like showing off our talents.
And that’s why I think it’s worth bringing up at all. If we’ve painted one fear- public speaking – with such a brush, what else are we wrong about? What other limiting behaviors do we accept as fact without digging deeper?
Keep it in mind the next time your gut tells you that you can’t do something.