I had a speaking engagement about a year ago that was a disaster the minute I walked into the room. I didn’t know it’d be a disaster until about five minutes in but I should have known because of the way the room was set up. I was behind a sizable barrier, which made it difficult to feel “in touch” with my audience and the attendees were wrung out from a long day and most of them sat in the back of the room adding more of a barrier. Because my presentation was more touchie-feelie than straight information, it made for a lousy dynamic. I heard nothing but crickets when I’d ask for audience participation and had to do more of a song and dance than usual to get people to talk. I remember midway through the presentation wanting to just STOP and give in.
“Forget it,” I imagined saying, unplugging my laptop. “I’m outta here.”
I’d escape. Run down the steps and to my car before anyone had time to stop me. I’d go home and climb into bed, pull my covers up over my head and tell my husband to hold my calls.
Of course you can’t run; you have to get through it. And so I waded through the morass that my talk had become, pumping as much cheer as I could into my delivery and by the end of the limping, tired workshop, I actually got some encouraging feedback from the audience.
I’ve had disastrous interviews. I’ve gotten rejected by editors. I’ve stood alone, petrified by nerves at networking events. I’ve put myself out there and then, defeated, reeled myself back in. I’ve stood in front of audiences, mind blank and wondering what I was going to say before my memory kicked in. I’ve cracked jokes that fell flat to a room full of expectant faces. I’ve watched people’s eyes glaze over and scrambled to bring them back.
Oh I’ve failed, yes I have. But the more you fail, the easier failure gets. It’s true.
That disastrous speaking engagement, it was an hour in purgatory. As soon as I realized that it was not going to go well I thought of all the stand-up comedians who bomb. And most of them do indeed bomb. Even the great ones have off nights. I knew that the price of speaking in public, which I like to do, means sometimes having it go really really poorly. My stomach dropped into my shoes and my sense of time stalled and drew the hour out like taffy and I felt slightly outside of myself the way you do when you realize you’re falling or the car is crashing or some other disaster is impending. It was a nightmare happening in real time and for a second or two I lost my nerve and fought back tears. But at the same time I had some presence of mind behind my eyes that very calmly said, “Well, there’s no way to get to the end of it but to get through it.” Which is when I gave up my fright to flight instinct and settled down to trudge through the rest of my talk.
When it was over I felt exhausted and relieved. It was over. I had bombed and I was on the other side.
The next time (and thank goodness there’s been only one more time and that was a tech disaster that wasn’t of my own doing) a talk went poorly, I felt that same sinking then lifting and again I knew that the other side was right there if I’d just swim to it.
It’s just like the first time an editor said no. And the first time I got a terrible, nasty email from someone who read one of my essays and hated it.
It’s like the first time getting dumped or having a friend blow you off. It happens and you survive. But meanwhile you have whatever happened before. You have that first kiss. You have that heart-to-heart with a friend who gets you. You have that hope when you hit “send” on a submission. And then, too, you have those great times when it goes well.
I’m telling you this to say that if you’re thinking about trying something (writing, submitting, networking, etc.) but are feeling too scared to take that leap, leap anyway. It’s all right to be terrified but make the leap anyway. You might fail. You might bomb. But you also might have a really great time and you will definitely learn something about yourself.
A version of this post originally appeared on my now defunct personal blog, this woman’s work.
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