Public Speaking Butterflies

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Georgia Southern professor Tiffany Russell was nervous yesterday. Really nervous. It was the first run-through for speakers at the first-ever TED Talks in Charleston, SC and we were being graded by volunteers with clipboards and score sheets. And filmed.

Tiffany’s run-through was right after mine and we had a chance to whisper, in the front row, about nerves. Specifically why, even when you speak publically all the time, they don’t go away. She talks to college students everyday; I used to be on TV every night and I talk about Byrne Miller every chance I get. You’d think this would be a breeze for people like us but it isn’t.

My method of coping with nerves has always been to rehearse so much that my worry switches to whether my presentation still feels natural. Once I’ve got my talk memorized, about half of my nerves disappear. It’s not a theory I claim to have invented. It was drilled into me in my previous life as a U.S. Rhythmic Gymnastics team member. I trained six hours a day, six days a week. The music my routines were set to became worse than earworms; I heard my ball, hoop, clubs and ribbon music in my dreams.   

But practicing in a gym isn’t the same as walking out onto the mat in a huge stadium, with television cameras, a live audience, a panel of judges and your Olympic career on the line. All you can hope for is that muscle memory kicks in and you can lose yourself in that music.

Which is exactly what happened yesterday. I didn’t have to use my notes but I got lost in the story I was telling. So until I see the tape I have no idea if I left anything important out. Tiffany was certain that she did leave some parts out. And it made her even more nervous.

But it occurred to me, as we commiserated, that there is a flip side to being nervous. I told her that if we ever get so blasé about our topics that we aren’t nervous, then we have a problem. Being nervous just means we care so much about the content that we want to get it right. We want the audience to lean forward, light up and remember.  

Probably because my TED talk is about my “Other Mother,” I’ve been thinking about all the mothers I know. How they never stop being nervous about their kids. Whether they’re giving them the right advice, how much they should push or hold back, when to intervene in life’s everyday little battles. Much more is at stake than a TED talk for them. There is no script to memorize. There will very likely be no applause, even if they get it perfectly right. They are nervous because they care so much. It’s a sign of how much they love their kids. It puts it all in perspective for me.

So bring on the butterflies – I’m fine with a few dancing in my stomach.