The horrors of public speaking

18:50, Nov 28 2012

I blame my mother. Yes, yes, alright; fair enough - so does everyone else. There was a story like that about the late England cricketer Fred Trueman, involving a catch dropped off his bowling during a Test against the West Indies. They say the ball sailed straight between the knees of the errant fieldsman. "Sorry Fred", came the apology. "I should have kept my legs together." "Hmmphh", snorted Fiery. "Wish your bloomin' mother had".

Okay, so I'm not blaming her for everything. Just for my aversion to public speaking. She's not with us at the moment so she can't defend herself on this. But even if she was, I reckon she'd enter a guilty plea straight away. It was her fault, you see. If it wasn't for that moment in the early seventies when I was a callow 11-year-old sapling, who knows - I might have grown up to be an accomplished after dinner speaker. People might have laughed with me, instead of at me.

"That" moment? Well, it was where it all started, really. Most phobias can be traced back to some overly traumatic, childhood event. Mine was a song contest while at intermediate school in Dunedin. Had chosen to croon everyone with Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night". Committed the words to heart (can still remember them). But then my mother heard a recital on the eve of contest and everything turned to custard.

Am still not sure what part of the lyrics she didn't like. What could be wrong with: "Take the ribbon from your hair/Shake it loose and let it fall/Lay it against, upon my skin/Like the shadows on the wall/Come and lay down by my side/Till the early morning light/All I'm takin' is your time/ Help me make it through the night." And then the chorus: "I don't care what's right or wrong/I won't try to understand/Let the devil take tomorrow/Lord, tonight I need a friend."

Anyway, she was very persuasive; even helped me find and source another song, one she probably felt was more age appropriate. The choice? "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing". You know how it goes. "I'd like to build the world a home/And furnish it with love/Grow apple trees and honey bees/And snow white turtle doves/I'd like to teach the world to sing/In perfect harmony/I'd like to hold it in my arms/And keep it company."

And so the big day dawned. The assembly hall was full, most of the teaching staff were in attendance; there was even a scattering of mums and dads. Not mine, though. Can still remember being introduced; being handed the microphone, and then just standing there on the stage; a small boy staring out into what seemed an endless sea of faces. I can remember the pianist, a kind, warm woman, beginning the prelude. And I can remember singing the first couple of bars.

What I remember most, though, is the moment I froze. It may seem an obvious point but an important part of singing "I'd Like to Teach the World To Sing", is to actually remember the words. Can still hear the pianist, desperately back-tracking and trying to pick me up; once, twice, three times - but to no avail. And then, to howls of laughter; raucous, loud, thigh-slapping laughter, I fled through the backstage in tears and kept running. Think I sprinted all the way home.

Ever since? I've usually turned to water whenever asked to speak publicly. I've studiously avoided standing up in front of anyone. The other day, however, was something of a watershed. Went down to Otago University, thought I was to be part of a panel discussion but ended up having to speak for 20 minutes or so. And you know what? Wasn't even slightly anxious. Didn't vomit beforehand or even sweat profusely during.

So, if you're up there, Mother; just wanted to say - seems I finally got over it, after all. Just like you always said would happen. And, to think: it only took forty years.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.

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