Anxiety, and the fact it has nothing whatsoever to do with public speaking.
An empty hall.
From the podium on the tiny stage, up to a sea of empty, folded, black chairs, littered with a thousand flyers of fringe events that have come and gone.
Lights seem to stare me down, from all directions, daring me to blink first.
Suddenly the words on the page seem to be printed in far too small a font, and be far too far away from where they need to be.
A helpful reminder from a colleague that my speech is being taken live on the BBC, so best not screw up.
Then the hall isn’t empty any more. It’s filled with faces, some I know, most I don’t. Chattering and laughing, the collective din of a crowd motivated by lunch and gossip and ideas.
And then I’m speaking.
The words come out, more or less in the order I intend them to. I can speak clearly, I can raise my voice and lower my voice when I mean to. I can speed up and slow down as I planned to. I’m actually enjoying this.
Then I’m done.
I handover to the main speaker and take my place in the crowd.
The fact more than a thousand people were in that room, and who knows how many watching at home didn’t bother me. The truth is speaking in large groups — be it a classroom or an auditorium has never bothered me. After three elections, and now embarking on a career as a high school teacher, some people won’t understand that. It seems illogical.
It’s anxiety, but maybe not as you know it.
Ellena Restrick wrote an excellent blog on this a year ago, which I’ve only read this week because someone tweeted it onto my feed. She hits the proverbial nail on the head when she writes:
I felt more confident performing in front of tens or hundreds of people than I did having a conversation with a stranger. People could never understand how I could be like that.
I understand exactly what she means. There’s an element of performance in both standing for election and being a teacher. You’re acting, in a way. Sure in teaching you’re building relationships with young people, thinking of the best ways to foster their learning and development and putting pedagogical theory into practice. But in essence you’re putting on a show seven periods a day.
So with all that in mind, it might seem strange for me to say (admit?) that I suffer from anxiety. That’s because people don’t understand how anxiety works. It isn’t (always) about large crowds or classrooms full of people. For me, it’s the room with five people that makes me anxious.
I remember going along to the first meeting of a new organisation I had became involved with. I knew most of the people round the table, we were all there with a common purpose and there was nobody unpleasant there, in fact it was all very welcoming. Yet I still fretted about it beforehand — what might I say? Will I have anything to say at all? What if they think I’m totally unsuited? Maybe I should just not turn up? Will they ask me to leave? What will I say if they ask me to leave? What if this is the wrong place anyway? What am I actually doing here? Questions and more questions, all dismissed as utterly ridiculous in my conscious mind, but in a way that doesn’t stop them praying on me all the same.
In the end I turned up just as the meeting was about to begin so as to avoid any small-talk, and left straight afterwards to escape the same.
I realised as I hurriedly headed for the door that I wasn’t alone. Someone else shared the same goal as me, but was far more honest about admitting it. My co-conspirator put their anxiety down to feeling inadequate, to assuming they would have nothing intellectually useful to add to the discussion so they wanted to leave before they were found out. That is only a small part of why I feel the way I feel (which I hope to God doesn’t come across as arrogant, because I don’t mean it like that).
Afterwards the questions return — did I say that thing in the right way? Did people get what I meant? Maybe they picked me up wrong? Did I offend that person by not saying anything or by what I did say? Again, the conscious sought to ignore, to dismiss, to move on but the questions gnawed away at me anyway.
I am writing this not because I have some miracle cure or bright spark of an idea. Indeed I’m not seeking a cure, I am who I am, and I’m quite happy thank you very much.
But I suppose starting out in teaching I’ve been thinking about it a lot more.
Being in a classroom as the teacher for the first time made me realise just how anxious a lot of young people are too.
Questioning pupils is a natural teacher thing to do, but it is often pointless, a mere filler in the lesson rather than of any actual educational value. ‘No hands up’ questioning goes some way to dealing with the issue of the most confident pupil always answering first, but it doesn’t make every pupil comfortable.
I’m acutely aware that those young people who are also anxious — anxious about getting the wrong answer, or just about speaking out loud could go a whole day without speaking their mind unless prompted and supported to do so. Imagine going a whole week thinking the answer to yourself, articulating in your head what you’d like to say, but never speaking out loud — you’d very quickly decide that it might just be easier to not participate at all.
So it would be helpful if people understood anxiety a bit more.
Firstly, don’t assume because someone can speak to a room of 30 or 3,000 that they don’t suffer from anxiety. Equally, don’t assume because someone is a chatterbox in a small group of friends that they’re comfortable in every social situation.
Secondly, don’t think someone is just shy or quiet or nervous or boring because they aren’t the life and soul of the party all the time.
Thirdly, finding something that does completely relax you matters. For me that’s running — sometimes miles upon miles. In the sunshine or the rain, the hail or the dark. It’s the only time my head is entirely clear of everything.
Fourthly, if you don’t get anxious in these kind of situations make an effort to speak to those who might — starting the conversation might be all that’s needed and could make a huge difference. (don’t start with “Hey, ARE YOU ANXIOUS TALK TO ME” though).
And finally, anxiety is normal. It’s a part of who we are. Some people get more anxious than others. Try to understand that and change your behaviour to accommodate them, rather than waiting for them to conform to your stereotype.