I speak to crowds often when I’m promoting a book, and I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. But I used to rank public speaking as one of my biggest fears after an unfortunate experience with “extemporaneous speaking” my freshman year of high school. (We had to pick a word out of a hat and immediately speak about it for 60 seconds. I picked the word “symbol,” then stood in front of the class for 60 seconds of silence.)
Luckily, that changed in the last ten years, just in time for me to start going on book tours. And for that I credit a few hobbies and activities that became part of my life during that time: karaoke, teaching, guitar, and dance class. I didn’t take up any of these as antidotes to my speaking fear, but they worked. Here’s how:
Karaoke: I’ve always loved singing, and I ended up with some friends who loved the idea of karaoke as much as I do. So for several years, karaoke was a huge part of my social life. I was nervous the first few times I did it, but it quickly became one of the most freeing experiences of my life: Once you see a few truly terrible singers get up there and win applause anyway, it makes your turn much easier. And once you sing in front of strangers—whether you’re good, bad, or mediocre—you realize that speaking to people about a topic in which you are a genuine expert is no big deal.
Teaching: Teaching brought that into clearer focus for me. I teach writing, which is what I also do for a living. So it was easy to feel confident in what I was telling my students, and being in front of classes week after week, not worrying about the material as much as the presentation of it, helped me learn how to communicate with groups as well as how to read a crowd and adjust as I go.
Guitar: Several years into my karaoke career, I took up guitar and started a band with a friend. This helped me with my speaking in a different way: I’m a decent singer/karaoke-er, but especially in my early days of guitar playing, I was understandably not good. And yet, we wanted to be a band, which meant playing in front of friends and even in some open mics. Even as I got better in private, the nerves of being onstage brought out every possible kind of mistake. I even once forgot the words to a song—despite the fact that one of my superpowers is remembering the words to songs from 30 years ago. It took me back to that extemporaneous speaking disaster, but this time, as an adult, I saw it differently. I didn’t die from having fucked up on stage. In fact, the crowd cheered, and we moved on. I have fucked up countless times in my own open mic performances since, and every time, I have lived through it. This taught me that fucking up in front of others is totally fine, no matter what my overachiever tendencies tell me.
Dance: Dance class has been the final key to freedom for me. I take a really fun class with a teacher named Mitchell Wayne in New York City. He has a number of classes revolving pop songs, though I usually take the Britney Spears class on Mondays, in which we learn mainly Britney’s actual choreography. I get so into it that I don’t really care how I look, and Mitchell helps even more with his attitude. He often lectures us about making the steps our own, making steps up if we don’t remember the real ones, and selling it to our nonexistent audience with confidence. This seems to me the perfect approach to speaking in front of a crowd as well. If you don’t remember what you were “supposed” to say, calm yourself for a breath and then go with what’s in your head instead.
So if I end up breaking out into the choreography for “Oops … I Did It Again” during a book tour stop, now you know why.