Public Speaking and Selective Mutism
Last week I spoke at a literary reception at my college. I sent in six poems to Tetrahedra, the poetry and art publication on campus, and four of them made it into the final printing. Mrs. G, the editor of Tetrahedra, sent me an email a few weeks before, inviting me to this reception and telling me that one of my poems was getting an award. She also said that this was an opportunity for those involved to get up and say a few words.
If it had been a few years ago, I’d have shuddered at the idea of talking in front of a crowd, a reaction I probably shared with many others. For the last few years, I’ve been practicing for these moments where I’d need to speak to people. It seems like no matter what area of life you are engaged in, being able to communicate and speak normally is one of the most important skills you can have. A couple of speech classes, interpersonal skills classes, and a whole shelf of self-help books later, I am very excited at the prospect of speaking about my poem. I’ll go up, be charming and everybody will love me, right?
When the day actually came, I sat in a room of just about 75 people, waiting for my turn to speak. One by one, others were getting behind a podium and either reading their poem or talking about their artwork, and after each person finished talking, I got more and more nervous. I wasn’t even listening to what they were saying, and instead, I was trying to figure out which of my four poems I was going to have to talk about and read. Plus, I was rehearsing in my head what I’d say for each of them. The more time I spent in my head though, the more the anxiety was taking over — this felt a lot like the anxiety I got in the past when I thought maybe I would have to talk to somebody or when I was about to be musical on stage.
What I did was try to stop thinking so much and stay in the moment. When and if the time comes for me to speak, I’ll deal with it then. The fear is worst just before you speak. Once you’re up there and doing it, the anxiety will loosen up if you can redirect that anxiety into your speech or whatever performance you are doing. The nervousness will make you more conscious of whatever you are doing and it will feel like an adrenaline rush.
That is only part of the story though. You’ve got to practice beforehand and prepare your skills enough to have the competence to perform well. If you’re trying to do something that makes you anxious, it would be smart to minimize the things that would make you anxious. Like if you’re having to deal with both stage fright and memorizing your speech at the same time just as you are about to speak, then it’s going to be a lot harder than if you know your speech by heart and all you have to deal with at that moment is the fear of speaking.
Although they aren’t completely identical mediums of communication, there are certainly some similarities between public speaking and being selectively mute around your schoolmates. When you say someone choked on stage, it means he/she failed to perform, sort of like failing to speak to your friends. Both are sort of like pseudo-phobias.
What I’m saying is when I’m trying to talk to someone for the first time in an SM-contaminated area, I don’t want to be worried about what to say as well as about being selectively mute. The easiest first step to take is greeting people. If you have selective mutism, saying hi to someone will still be difficult, but it’ll be easier than trying to jump into a conversation or starting one.
Anyway, I finally got called for my poem called Insomnia that got 1st place. I got my picture taken, talked about writing it, read it, and then it was over. The only thing left was to thank everybody who congratulated me, and I enjoyed every bit of the glory.
I want to leave you with some other things you can do, so if you have a fear of public speaking or know someone who does, you can find tons of books about the topic at the library or bookstore, you can take a class in your area, or you can find advice through a google search. Or you can get some good ebooks here (more focus on the fear) and here (a focus on public speaking as a whole).