Opinion | Off the Cuff

Why public speaking gives me the jitters

It’s worse when you make a mistake

  • By Ritu Dokania 
Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 September 15, 2013
  • Gulf News

The veneer of my confidence was torn off leaving me embarrassed. Yes, I believe there are two types of public speakers: Those who are nervous and those who lie about being nervous. I belong to the former one.

Though I am a good actress and can put on a facade of indifference easily, it’s difficult to mask the fear of public speaking. After all most people fear it. Somebody said it right: ‘Be better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.’

I smile to cover my nervousness, but I end up looking like a grinning fool while making a business presentation at a referral institute. I cannot get rid of this inner demon who comes out every time I need to speak in public. Thanks to technology like Powerpoint which works as a security blanket as it doesn’t let me forget what I am talking about. My fear can’t be dispelled by advice like ‘just relax’ and ‘be yourself’. It seems an exercise in futility.

Outside this arena, however, I am a confident, social person.

Always before these nerve-wracking experiences, I am tempted to try a drug called ‘Social Viagra’, which claims to combat shyness and anxiety. But the fact is that my phobia is deep-rooted. I have a huge chip on my shoulder about public speaking. That is why despite the intervening years I’ve never gotten over this fear. It all happened in grade six when I had my first bout of speaking in front of an audience. I used to have a class of impromptu speeches where the teacher randomly picked up cards with student’s names on them and they had to deliver a speech on the topic she would ask.

Being the most disciplined student, once my teacher asked me to deliver few lines on ‘peace’. I was nervous, terrified and blank as I faced my classmates who seemed overwhelmingly judgmental. I was distracted and not well-received initially.

One trick that helped me was to smile constantly. It didn’t make me less nervous, but it made other people think that I was less nervous. With clammy hands and a churning stomach, I started my speech.

Gradually words and my elocution skills were in flow making me feel proud that I could articulate my thoughts in front of my classmates in an efficient manner. At the end I wanted to conclude my speech with a riveting message.

Not more than five minutes of drone has been passed, the drowsy ambience was broken. But to my surprise, it was not broken by applause, but by hoots and whistles. Confused by this hullaballoo, I turned hesitatingly towards my teacher trying to figure out what went wrong. The teacher looked disorientated and immediately leapt to my defence by reprimanding the students. I realised my blunder.

I wished I could crawl into a hole or decrease into the size of a piece of chalk and hide into teacher’s hand. I went back to my seat.

Brimming with guilt, I wished scientists had invented a bottle of liquid to spray over listeners which would have rendered them to forget the mistakes the speaker made. But I knew there was no point crying over spilt milk.

My self-esteem slipped further when my friends mocked my faux pas: “I hope everybody in the class will try to bring peace by being united and making love.” I intended to say ‘keeping love’. Not the most politically correct statement in a class full of nubile girls, was it?

Ritu Dokania is an author based in Dubai.

Gulf News
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