Back in February Sandy Heimlich-Hall asked me speak as part of a forum on blogging at this year's Radio-Television News Directors Association's BC Regional professional development conference, which is being held tonight and Saturday at the South Thompson Inn & Conference Centre. After a little thought I agreed to participate, and have been sh*tting bricks ever since.
Why? It's not that I'm a nervous speaker. I am a terrified speaker.
It's funny, because over time I've done more public speaking than most people. Back in grade school, my gift for the public gab help me achieve lofty political office as Bert Edwards Elementary School's student body president. The attention was often exhilarating, but when it failed to produce a high instead my body was wracked with excruciating performance anxiety (racing heart, vomiting, the runs, etc.). I recall as a boy hiding in the change room at MacDonald Park swimming pool before swimming lessons, my guts churning with anticipation of... who knows what?
It got worse over time. In Mr. Shanahan's grade 8 English class at McArthur Park, I literally fainted while reading a creative writing assignment to the class. But rather than have my secret fears exposed, I quickly embellished a cover story while recovering in the medical room, a story which involving skipped breakfast (well I had, the day before) and a chocolate bar on the way to school (actually, one of my classmates had done that). The concerned teaching staff predictably concluded that my blood sugar had crashed at the exact moment I stood up to speak; as they swallowed the bait I discovered that a little misdirection could help me avoid admitting my weakness.
Sports affect me the same way. I was a nationally-ranked wrestler in high school, but as much as practices were fun, the tournaments were dreadful. Same thing with rugby and football. The other boys would jump around, screaming and shouting to pump themselves up, but I couldn't peel myself off the toilet.
During Expo 86 I was a host at the BC Pavilion, and regularly spoke to groups of 250 people or more. I only lost it once through those 6 phenomenal months in Vancouver, but although it was the exception that's still really the only occasion I can recall with any clarity. I completely lost it at the microphone, first with a rod-stiff neck, then increasingly frequent facial ticks, a racing heart, quavering voice, and obvious/audible hyperventilation that prompted several kindly older ladies to ask if I needed to see a doctor as they filed out at the end of the presentation.
A few years ago, Microsoft asked me to sit on a panel of .NET early adopters at a large conference in Anaheim. I agreed, but was so overwhelmed with dread that I asked my doctor for help. He suggested beta blockers, which apparently are quite widely used by public speakers, and even world-renowned surgeons prior to operations. They are supposed to block most nervous symptoms, but leave your thoughts unimpeded. The day before I left for the conference, I tried out this new remedy at a the Friday morning Daybreak Rotary meeting, where I imposed on an acquaintance to bring me along as a guest. Then, armed with a roll of loonies, I stood up and explained my situation to the group while plugging loonies into the announcement fund. It seemed to work at the time, but two days later in Anaheim, as I climbed on stage with Microsoft CIO Rick Devenuti and other bright lights, I would have given anything for a nice quiet outhouse and a shot of Demerol.
Around the same time, I agreed to speak at a city council on behalf of the Kamloops Chamber of Commerce (on which board I served). My friend Al McNair suggested a home-remedy for stage fright: Gravol. I slipped one under my tongue as we sat and waited our turn in council chambers, but by the time I jumped up to speak it hadn't calmed my nerves one bit. Rather, the Gravol had numbed my tongue to the point where any spoken words would have been completely unintelligible. In fact, I had to keep wiping away the saliva that was running down into my goatee from the corner of my now completely numb lips. Thankfully, my fragile heart raced for naught; we weren't on the list of speakers, so then-Mayor Rothenburger saved the day by promptly dismissing me when I stood to salivate at the lectern.
The good former mayor won't be able to rescue me tomorrow however, as someone else will have the gavel. The two of us are co-panelists, and will join speakers from CTV and the CBC on stage for the afternoon forum. With any luck my new and improved prescription of beta blockers will allow me to do more than pry myself away from the loo for just long enough to get up on stage and crawl under the table.
Will I offer anything of value to the assembled broadcast news directors? I hope so. I enjoy blogging, and as frequent readers can attest, really love the media. As it is however, maybe the most lasting (and representative) impression I'll leave them with is this; bloggers may come across as fearless and opinionated blow hards, but when the light of day is cast upon us, some of us look a lot like chickens.
That's a joke... I say, that's a joke, son!
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