At 5:46 p.m. yesterday, I found myself talking to myself in my car, hand gestures and all. Despite having parked in a lot that had seemed mostly abandoned, every few seconds, a car would pull in or a person would walk by and I’d have to stop talking and look like I was casually looking at my phone.
While I was relieved I hadn’t become so crazy that I was willing to let people see me talking to myself, I will say my stress level was 100 percent high. In 44 minutes, I was giving a presentation to a room full of pre-med students about how to edit their personal statements.
I knew two things going in. One, my material was solid: helpful, time-tested, applicable not just to their personal statements, but all writing. But two, that I am not famous for my public speaking skills.
I’ve had to push myself over the past two years since I started Sway and overcome what can become debilitating doubt standing behind a podium. The fear stems, of course, from the prospect of freezing up in front of a crowd and not have any words come out of my mouth. Have you ever been there? Your brain is at once paralyzed and racing and you are trying desperately to pluck something, anything, out of it so that this silence, which feels like it’s quickly taking over the world, can be over.
Thinking of that happening is enough to make my stomach tighten. That, of course, contributes to another fear: that my bowels will become uncooperative mid-speech and it will become a scene right out of the movie Bridesmaids.
For the duration of my life, I’d tried to fend off these two possibilities by practicing and practicing and practicing what I’m going to say before I say it. When I was young, that meant writing down an entire speech and then memorizing it verbatim.
Since I’ve started Sway Essay, I’ve realized that approach might have worked when I had a five-minute speech about pollution (I had sprayed some baby powder-scented aerosol deodorant in the middle of that act), but it wasn’t going to work for half an hour. So I crafted a few pretty PowerPoints and lean on them like a crutch.
My go-to is practicing my presentations in front of a mirror. In this case, the mirror in the basement bathroom so no one, should they come to the front door, can hear me. Talking to yourself in a mirror is an interesting experience. For one, its an inordinate opportunity to scrutinize your face and hairdo. Which prompts questions like: has my mouth always moved a little crookedly like that? Is it just that my nose is crooked and that’s the problem? What happened to my eyes and when did they get so wrinkly? Also, do I hate my glasses, or do I like them?
In preparing a presentation, I talk and talk and talk through a slide until I get it right, admonish myself for the jokes I try to make and then promise myself that I won’t make them, jot down a few notes when the wording comes out right and then move on.
As far as speeches go, I felt exceptionally prepared last night. When I walked into the room, I felt the usual jitters but nothing overwhelming. Then, for the first time ever, I actually started to look forward to what I had to say. I looked around the room and saw all of these go-getter students and I felt this strong affection for them. I knew I could help them, but, what’s more, I felt proud to have the opportunity to talk to them.
So, after I was introduced, I stepped up to the podium. Things started moving along just fine. I didn’t mess up the slide clicker, I didn’t forget my words. In fact, I was nearly finished my presentation when I got to my bit about semi-colons. I’m pretty fanatical about punctuation and semi-colons are my pet peeve. I’m not sure why students feel this compulsion to use them as often as they do, but they do. What’s more, eight times out of 10, they’re used incorrectly. So I began my spiel and then started explaining that students often use a semi-colon when they should really be using a colon.
And then I felt this overwhelming rush of goodwill for the room, for the fact that I wasn’t nervous, even for this piece of punctuation. So then I said, unabashedly, to the pre-meds: “I’ll be honest, I’ve always felt exceptional affection for the colon.”
It wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized what I said and why it had, for the first time that night, made the students laugh.