“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”- Jerry Seinfeld
One of my least favorite memories from grade school was when we’d read our text books out loud in front of the class. Not only do I find it an ineffective method of teaching, but I was also a nervous kid growing up and stumbled quite a bit when speaking. Some days, instead of spending recess outside playing dodge ball or hanging out with friends or digging holes in the dirt, I was cooped up in a dusty old classroom sounding out big words and practicing complex sentences with a teacher who wanted to be there about as much as I did.
It was embarrassing having to read out loud, tripping over myself as I tried to read, verbatim, about the three branches of government while my peers picked at gum underneath their desks and suffered through a horror show of hiccups and hang ups.
When I said “ineffective” earlier, I meant by virtue of the fact that nine times out of 10, I had already read the material we were all about to read out loud. Reading it again seemed counterintuitive to moving forward with the subjects we were learning. That’s not to say I saw no value in what we did.
Since then I’ve gone on to give high school and college presentations, I’ve given speeches and, every Friday, I participate in a weekly meeting at the Arizona Daily Sun in which I pitch stories and eat all kinds of pizza I don’t deserve. I’m also a musician and perform (semi) regularly on stage and in cramped bedrooms. Lately I’ve been trying to read more of my fiction and poetry out loud and in front of an audience. Last Monday I was asked to read at the Narrow Chimney Reading Series, and on Tuesday I read at Juniper House.
Before both readings I endured bouts of restless hysteria, to the point of delirium. It was a little different than the nerves I typically feel before a show because, at least with a show, there’s something to hide behind. The music, my band mates, some sort of persona that separates me from you, my personal life from the performer on stage. But when reading something like poetry and fiction, you’re looking through a window which I am standing right in front of. And I don’t like being looked at. Of course, for someone whose job is to look at and observe and analyze things, people and events, when that gaze is brought toward me it’s the most uncomfortable thing in the world. I am not the only one, however.
It’s been estimated that 75 percent of all people experience some degree of glossophobia, or anxiety or nervousness when it comes to public speaking. Learning how to overcome the fear can provide a number of benefits for one’s personal and professional life. According to research by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, practicing public speaking can help advance your career, boost confidence and build new social relationships—you’d be surprised how many people love a good non-fiction essay about suicide.
I joke about that, but one of the essays I read, called “Suicide in Three Parts,” dealt with instances of suicide ranging from poet and author Sylvia Plath to my high school friend Alex Haler. After the set there were a number of people who came up and talked with me about their own experiences with suicidal thoughts or friends and family who had committed suicide. If I didn’t read that essay, the connections I made with people whom I’ve never met may not have ever happened. Because Ian Keirsey read a poem about the needs and dignity of houseless individuals, we might have gone unaware that socks, belts and underwear are among the least donated and most sought after items for the less fortunate.
Public speaking can be a powerful tool, and places like Juniper House are great places to practice and hone those skills. And if we can be comfortable with our vulnerability we might find connections we never thought were there.