When I was in high school, I ran cross country and track. The dread I felt before a race eclipsed any fears I’ve had since, and for a long time, whenever I faced a daunting task, I could hearken back to the heart-pounding, adrenaline-in-my-mouth taste of terror I managed to overcome every time I stepped up to the starting line. Compared to that, how hard could it be to speak in public? After all, if I could conquer the fear of a 3K race time after time, knowing the physical pain I’d suffer for the next twelve minutes, how could I squirm at the idea of standing in one place and speaking. Only speaking? Other than stomach cramps, it wouldn’t hurt. It probably wouldn’t kill me.
But the frustrating thing about irrational fears is that they can’t be overcome through mental tricks or sheer force of will. Past success can breed some inoculation against future fears of failure, and true, the more often I speak in front of strangers, the less harrowing it becomes. But that dread never fully dissipates, and woven through those memories of triumph, I have anecdotes of abject, humiliating defeat.
In the spirit of Sierra’s embarrassing diary readings in Crushing It, let me confess one of these moments. When I was in seventh grade, my mom entered me into a cotillion. Each night, boys and girls would line up facing each other, and one couple after another would meet in the doorway, shake hands, introduce themselves, and proceed arm in arm onto the dance floor. One night, I counted ahead to find who I’d be paired with, delighted to discover my dance partner would be the cutest boy in the whole class: Kevin Fox (no really!). The line shortened, and as I came ever closer to shaking hands with Kevin Fox, I imagined the whole scenario in my head: How we’d meet, how we’d hold hands as we danced. Everything was coming together for me and my night with Kevin Fox. At last, it was our turn. We approached one another. I held out my hand. He held out his hand. And then I said, “Hello, my name is Kevin Fox.”
This happened *cough*ty-seven years ago, and I remember it viscerally.
Given my history with some good and some awful experiences, it’s not surprising that my fears of public speaking are inconsistent. I have good days and bad. I’ll have no trouble speaking on a panel in front of a large audience, especially if I share the stage with other authors to diffuse the spotlight. But when I’m the center of attention, my nerves heighten, and I can’t even read aloud from a script or introduce myself to a small group without mild panic. I rely a lot on humor, especially self-deprecating jokes, to get through the most awkward situations. And I’ll remind myself of all the times I’ve conquered my fears and didn’t completely fall apart in front of my peers. But for every uneventful introduction, I can recall a Kevin Fox moment of mortification. (I sure hope Kevin Fox doesn’t read this or I might die all over again.)
I wish I could say I’ve come up with a permanent solution to nerves, but I like to think that true bravery is getting up in front of people despite the fears and not letting them become a debilitating obstacle.
To pitch her new role-playing game at a European conference, developer Sierra Reid needs to overcome her terror of public speaking. What better practice than competing in a local bar’s diary slam, regaling an audience with old journal entries about her completely humiliating college crush on gorgeous Tristan Spencer?
Until the moderator says, “Next up, Tristan Spencer . . .”
Sierra is mortified, but Tristan is flattered. Caught up in memories of her decade-old obsession as they reconnect, Sierra tries to dismiss her growing qualms about him. But it’s not so easy to ignore her deepening friendship with Alfie, the cute, supportive bar owner. She and Alfie were college classmates too, and little by little, Sierra is starting to wonder if she’s been focusing her moves on the wrong target all along, misreading every player’s motivations.
Maybe the only winning strategy is to start playing by her heart . . .