‘When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.’ Lao Tzu
In the mid-1980s, I had supreme confidence. By the age of 19, I owned a five-bedroomed house in Manchester, a flashy car and had undertaken many travels. Add to that a good job, lots of friends and recognition as a footballer and my self-esteem was sky-high. By 25, I was a success story. Work was great, and life was easy. I was quite the extrovert, almost flamboyant. But how the mighty fall.
I grew up in a time when children were seen and not heard. Opinions were neither sought nor proffered, and if I couldn’t improve on the silence, I knew to shut up. No complaints. That was the regime of my birth. This lack of spoken opportunity did not prepare me for my baptism into the world of professional speaking.
In 1985, after many successful years of low-profile work activity, things took a turn for the worse. My world changed with the arrival of a brown paper envelope. Why was the secretary of the Board of the Cooperative Wholesale Society writing to me? The envelope remained in the tray for almost a week. Every day I picked it up, shook it, sniffed it and checked its weight. There was something suspicious about its energy. Its lurking presence like a black cloud hung over my desk - a horrible distraction. Its contents meant one thing - bad news. After a few weeks, I tore it open and confirmed my worst suspicion. I discovered an invitation to speak to the Board in three weeks.
I was right. Why me? Why did they pick on me? It was so unfair. I was off the radar. My magnolia personality allowed me to go unnoticed this far, and I did not want to speak to them. I could not speak to them. It was the beginning of the end of my naivety.
A harrowing experience ensued. My planning involved staring at a blank piece of paper for days on end. Prayer for the talk's cancellation remained unanswered. Anxiety welled in my chest. I felt dizzy. The shallow character behind the confident smile was on the brink of catastrophe.
When the big day came, I was confused. I tried to make an impression with my clothes. I wore a light blue suit like Don Johnson in Miami Vice, sleeves rolled up to the elbow. It was the fashion of the day, although my red plastic shoes were not. Next door to the Boardroom was a bathroom. While washing my hands, I made the mistake of opening the faucet too wide, and a gush of pressurised water splattered into the air. As I recoiled, it caught my light blue trousers. It looked like I had peed myself. What a mess. I stood under the hand drier with my pelvis thrust towards the wall as the drier strained to output air. At that moment, middle-aged men in expensive suits entered. They paid a lot of attention to my unnatural stance. It looked like I was trying to limbo into a brick wall.
“You must be Vince,” said one of the suits. “Having a bit of trouble?”
“Yes, but it’s not what you’re thinking,” I retorted, “I was just washing my hands when…”
“Come along now; you’re on next,” he said. “Did you have trouble with the tap?”
“Yes, how did you know?”
“You wouldn’t be the first person to come into the Boardroom looking like they’d wet themselves.”
I think I should have laughed, but how could I? I looked like I had wet myself. As I stepped into the Boardroom, all I could think of was my water-stained trousers. First impressions…
After a short cough, I tried to introduce myself. I cleared my throat and started again. From the outset, I saw ten middle-aged faces around the long table. They were in good humour, and the energy in the room was high. Perhaps one of them had alerted the others to my trouser predicament.
As I struggled to stand up straight, the room went out of focus. It began to spin to the right before stopping and turning to the left. The sun streaming in through the window was blinding. I feigned to cough, hoping to buy a moment’s pause but that too seemed like a mammoth task of coordination. I think I knew what I wanted to say, but my lower jaw felt heavy, and I was unable to close my mouth. The motors in my lips failed to shape the syllables of the words and evaporated into nothingness.
My heart lurched, and my stomach churned. I lost control of my breathing, and I felt my torso collapsing from the outside in. I touched my brow and then dabbed it. I was sweating profusely. One of the suits brought me a chair and sat me down. Later he released my tie and collar, and another began to fan me with a brown folder. After a few moments, I came around from a short tour of oblivion. I could breathe. The mist lifted, and there was a glass of water and an electric fan beside me. My eyes perceived life in its usual form. I feigned to stand up and resume my speech but rather like a boxer who had missed the count. Once back on my feet, I was ushered out of the room where the receptionist stirred from her chair. On leaving, everything looked the same as before, but with the realisation that my world had changed.
Out of body experiences are overrated. I felt crushed - like a juggernaut had squashed my soul. My performance was a complete capitulation, and I sensed an intense pain building which led to nausea and more sweating. But that thought soon passed because I knew that I had reserves to combat this situation. I had courage, spirit and resilience on my side. I felt inspired by the entire episode. I recognized that it was not my best moment, and neither was it an accurate reflection of my human potential.
The primary issue was that my ability to remain invisible as a protection mechanism had failed. Another point to resolve was that of doing the least possible work while retaining a salaried position. I needed a rethink and a massive upheaval in strategy to move forward. Bravado and irksome egotistical traits might be valued in some circles, but not it seemed at the Co-op. People prefer substance over show. Was this a spiritual awakening? I hoped so.
This miserable episode began a relentless journey, one which took me around the world, working in a field that I have grown to love. Three decades later, I am still in love with public speaking.
“Whenever we proceed from the known into the unknown, we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word ‘understanding’.” – Werner Heisenberg
Public speaking is a psychological and physiological experience. There is no shortage of books written on style and delivery. But what happens when you lose control, and you can’t breathe? People achieve delivery mastery when they have conquered their inner conflict when they have smashed through the anxiety glass ceiling. This book is about winning the internal battle, and the first lesson is to accept yourself. Next, we build confidence, and then you explore the voice and develop the rhythm and fluency that impacts your audience.
Public speaking is a massive subjective jigsaw. People see the pieces, but they cannot integrate them into a working whole. There is a lack of clarity around the big picture. Everything in public speaking is a technique. Though nothing in public speaking should ever look like a technique. When driving a car, your visual faculties must align with your hands and foot movements in a seamless fluency. You don’t want to grind the gears of your vehicle, nor do you want to do that to your voice, words and body language must not lack cohesion.
Do you remember your first driving lessons? It wasn’t what you expected, was it? It’s a huge responsibility to drive a car for evident reasons. You need to read and understand the Highway Code. It’s a tricky process, one that requires perseverance. To achieve mastery, you need to ground yourself in the subject's principles and then apply the necessary techniques. The skill is using the right method at the right time. For most people, public speaking is not life or death (whatever you tell yourself). As we’ll see, whatever you tell yourself has a profound impact on your outcomes. It’s best to ensure that your internal dialogue is positive and that you show patience with yourself when the going gets tough (as it will from time to time).
Observe great athletes, musicians and stage performers; they make the impossible look commonplace. It doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of dedicated, focused practice.
Look at your life, your profession, your partner and your children. Look at the years of investment in those key relationships. Everything that you value in life takes time to grow, make sure you invest in your time.
So why do we fall short with public speaking? We know that it’s not going to kill us, even though driving a car might. The big issue is that of criticism, judgement or public humiliation. You study and work hard, and you take life seriously, and now your place in your social or professional hierarchy is on the line. That’s not true, but the way we sell it to ourselves is convincing. As we’ll see, you can convince yourself of anything. You feel that you cannot control the outcomes. It spawns anxiety, and then the acute physiological reactions emerge (more on this to come).
Let’s look at some typical scenarios where anxiety occurs:
a) Asking somebody on a date (rejection hurts)
b) Going on a date (will they like me as much as I like them?)
c) Exams (have I studied enough (not studied enough))? What are the consequences of failing? Lost time – tuition and exam fees? Resits? Peer pressure? Parental pressure? Humiliation? Damaged self-esteem?
d) Job interviews – desire to progress and earn a living commensurate with your abilities (providing a home, food and decent life for your family)
e) Public speaking (a perceived threat of public humiliation - getting it wrong, letting yourself, team, company, industry down)
f) Sporting, musical or performance-based public endeavors, can you deliver the goods?
Anxiety exists when we perceive that we cannot control the outcomes. Anxiety breeds anxiety. The more we think about it, the worse it becomes. Most people suffering anxiety do not understand where the anxiety is coming from, and they mistakenly believe there is something wrong with them. They experience guilt and a sense of incompleteness. If you’re a human being, anxiety is situation normal. You’re alive! You’re not ill, and you don’t need fixing. Isn’t that great?
In many things, we can’t control the outcomes. There are no guarantees in life. I pitched a £150,000 project for a charity some time ago. I spent two weeks studying the brief and attended three practice sessions. It was exciting entering the Boardroom that day, and I recognized the importance of the project for my charity colleagues. So, when my opening statement struck home, I managed to get straight into my flow. I was flying. I had planned in detail, studied the brief and nailed the presentation. Everything went according to plan. My charity colleagues expressed their delight. We went for drinks and dinner, confident that success was ours. Three weeks later, we received notice that the funding went to another charity.
It’s the same with job interviews. You can answer the interviewers' questions, and create a great rapport with them. Your detailed research of their company and their competitors was phenomenal. You understand the job's exact requirements. Alas, in life, there are no guarantees of anything.
Why do we get anxious? It’s because we care about the outcome. It’s how we’re built. But all the things we value in life come with a massive investment in our time and energy. If you’re not competitive or you don’t want a positive outcome enough, you’ll be handing your golden opportunities to others. We must prepare ourselves for the competitive rigors of the world.
Just like presentation and job interviews, all you can ever do is give it your 100% in the planning, preparation and practice stages. After the session, detach yourself from the outcome, because it’s out of your hands. If there’s anything to improve upon, you have something to work for the future. There are many lessons to learn, and there’s always the next time. You have to be in it, to win it.