By Mordechai Schmutter
There comes a time in everyone’s life when he has to get up and speak his mind. In public. And he has my sympathies.
A huge portion of the population has a serious fear of public speaking, although they’d never say so out loud. I’ve always had that fear too, which is probably why I became a writer in the first place. I was like, “I’m never going to have to speak! I’m just going to write everything!”
But you know what they say: “Man writes a humor column, and G‑d laughs.” So at least there’s that.
But now my career has taken a turn where people are actually asking me to perform stand-up comedy. Sure, I’ve been writing speeches for people for years, but I’ve never wanted to deliver any of them. It was more like, “I’m not gonna say it! You say it!” But now people are saying, “No, you say it!” and I have to get over that fear, because people don’t laugh at your jokes when you’re passed out on the stage.
It’s a little weird that public speaking makes me nervous, though. I’m an English teacher, right? But public speaking is definitely more nerve-racking than teaching, because first of all, in school, no one’s listening. Also, you don’t have to worry about your audience making fun of you if you make a mistake, because you can rest assured that they’re already making fun of you anyway. For me, I consider it a pretty successful school day if no one audibly complains. Whereas if I’m giving a speech and people are audibly complaining, I’m in trouble. I’ve been to a lot of bad speeches, and no one has gotten up in middle and said, “Why do we have to know this?” “Is there gonna be a test?” “Can I go get food?”
No, they generally don’t say anything. They’re very nice about it. And that’s part of the issue, I think. You’re standing up and speaking to an audience, and you have no idea what they’re thinking. In general, if you walk up to a group of people at a simcha and start talking, and everyone stares in your direction and doesn’t say a single word for 45 minutes straight while you just go on and on, trying desperately to fill the silence, your natural instinct is to excuse yourself for a moment and jump out the window. But if you’re giving a speech, this is exactly what it feels like.
Sure, some speakers can read an audience, but chances are that you, personally, cannot. Let’s put it this way: How many times do you say something to your wife, and then not realize that she’s upset about it until at least a week later?
So yeah, I don’t think you can read an audience.
And that’s not even the only fear to be had on stage. There are a whole bunch of fears. (If you don’t already have these fears, you should probably skip the next few paragraphs, because they’re definitely not going to help you. Maybe I should have told you this before the previous paragraph. Oops. On the other hand, maybe you should read this section, so you can see why you might want to be nervous, and that way you can make an informed decision.)
For example, you might be nervous that people are going to scrutinize what you’ve said for generations to come. For example, Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address in 1863, and to this day, people are still trying to figure out what on earth he meant by “Four score and seven years ago.”
Also, you know how sometimes you have an argument with someone, and then, four score and seven days later, you’ll think of ten things you should have said? That’s another big fear of public speaking. You’re not going to gather everyone again just so you can say, “And another thing . . .”
Also, what if you go up there and realize you forgot your speech, and the index cards in your pocket are just a bunch of recipes?
Also, what if someone gets up because he has to leave, and everyone thinks he’s making a statement? (This is why, whenever I have to step out in the middle of a speech, I stare at my phone on the way out, so people think, “Yeah, it’s probably a big writing emergency.”)
Also, what if you have to scratch your nose? It’s not like your nose itching has been a major issue in your life, but it always manages to itch at the worst times, such as when you’re carrying soup.
But now that we got you good and nervous, here are some tips to help you survive the experience:
1. Don’t be nervous. People will only make fun of you if you make a mistake, and you’ll only make a mistake if you’re nervous. So for heaven’s sake, don’t be nervous! Being nervous will kill you.
(Great. Now I’m nervous that I’ll be nervous.)
2. Seriously, though, there’s no reason to be nervous. There are two kinds of speakers—those who like to speak, and those who don’t. If you don’t, and you still somehow find yourself giving a speech, there’s a pretty good chance it’s because people want to hear it. And if that’s the case, they’re all on your side. The only exception is when people didn’t particularly come for the speech—they came because they heard there’d be food. Like at a simcha. And if that’s the case, they want the speech to be over even more than you do. So you’ll be okay.
3. That said, most of the time, people are not sitting in the audience scrutinizing what you have to say. They’re just secretly happy that they’re not the ones up there sweating through five layers of clothing.
4. Apparently, it’s very hot on stage. So remember to bring up some water. You can pause at any time in the middle of your speech to drink water, and no one will question it. So whenever you’re trying to remember what you were going to say next, take a drink. If necessary, you can bring an entire water cooler up there, and keep refilling your cup, desperately trying to figure out what on earth you were going to say before you have to replace the jug.
5. A lot of the articles I’ve read on this topic say you should stick in a joke. A lot of good that does me. It’s stand-up comedy.
“Oh, you should stick in jokes!”
On the other hand, sticking in jokes gets people to listen, and that’s the last thing you want if you’re nervous.
6. They also say you should practice your speech in front of a mirror. I try that sometimes, but my kids keep knocking to ask if they can brush their teeth. But the good news is that, in front of a mirror, I’m not nervous, I have lots of eye contact, there’s a sink right there in case I need water, and I not only can scratch my nose while I talk, I can even floss.
But here’s my thought: Maybe you daven at the amud all the time, and you’re not nervous about that, right? So what do chazzanus and teaching have in common? Lack of eye contact. In school, everyone’s looking at the board, their books, their notes, their neighbor’s notes, their food, or the window. In shul, your back is facing the tzibbur, which is the only thing giving you the confidence to sing, even though your loving family has made it very clear that you cannot.
So the key, in public speaking, is to keep your back to the audience. Sure, they’ll think it’s weird that you’re facing away from them, but who cares what they think? You can’t see them anyway!
Anyway, thanks for listening to my self-pep talk. Let me know if any of these tips work, so I can use them in my own life.
I’m not gonna try them. You try them. v
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of three books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.