The weeks leading up to a speaking event my nerves will inevitably begin to shake; I bite my lip uncontrollably, my mood swings from ecstatic to horrified and back again, whilst sleep becomes entirely out of the question. Soothing these nerves just before I step onto the stage and find these strangers staring back at me is difficult work, but there is one trick which hasn’t failed me yet. All it requires is for me to picture a single person for whom I want to impress. Not a crowded auditorium filled with all sorts of people with complicated backgrounds and experiences. No, that’s far too scary to think about.
What’s needed is a voice tailored specifically for that individual. Since they’re never present at these talks I imagine the ways in which this phantom can monitor, edit and cull anything that ought be left out. So what if that person was in the room at the time of my talk – would she laugh at this joke? Would she find this topic mean spirited or lacking context in some way? What would she question and what would she want to improve herself? Which sections require explanation, which should be removed entirely? These kinds of questions are sure to bolster confidence and tidy up the clutter of a rhetorical performance.
This person might be fictional, they might be a celebrity mentor that’s inspired you in the past, or it might just be a close friend. Regardless of who this person is it’s important to have them by your side because you’ll be constantly wondering if things are going well; looking out into this crowd of unfamiliar faces is like staring up at the constellations and deciphering the light without a telescope. Hidden amongst this sea of strangers you’ll catch the face which yawns or the one that’s lit up in the dark by their phone. Some might whisper to their friends or even worse; they’ll stare directly at you with the ugliest, meanest frown they can summon.
As I’m walking around St Paul’s and trying to calm my nerves I find that in situations like this I need a friendly barometer of success. A needle which precisely flickers and responds consistently amongst this confusing, undecipherable storm in front of me.
I’ll pretend that she’s in the crowd and I’ll catch my breath and lock it into place. Smiling then becomes second nature and I’ll begin to talk with ease, hoping that maybe this time I can make her laugh.