I seem to have been struck by a fear of speaking in public. I don’t think I’ve ever been comfortable speaking to more than three people at once but now the thought of addressing large groups brings me out in a cold sweat. The condition even has a name: glossophobia. I think I might be a glossophobic.
Last year, I had my first taste of speaking in front of an audience when I boldly offered to run a training day at school.
And even then, it was only to a classroom full of teachers that I already knew. Still, I was wracked with nerves – spending ages tinkering with my slide show, rehearsing what I was going to say, and feeling irrationally anxious in the lead up to the day itself.
Here’s what happens when I have to speak in front of people: I get really flustered. I gabble, I stutter… I lose my train of thought. I forget key points. I don’t know what to do with my hands (What do you do with your hands?!).
Unfortunately, I was forced into speaking to a hall full of people this week. A small promotion at work means I now have to occasionally address parents en masse.
As the headmaster introduced me, my heart was already beating alarmingly fast. Strange gurgling sounds kept emanating from my throat. I feared that I may actually stand up and be struck with the inability to utter a single word.
I envisaged a horrifying scenario where I just stood gaping like a goldfish, my mouth opening and closing wordlessly. A hushed silence would descend on the room as parents stared agog at the car crash unravelling in front of them. Eventually, some men in white coats would appear and gently lead me away. I probably wouldn’t be seen for some time.
But of course, that didn’t happen. Quite the opposite, in fact. I set off speaking at a tremendous pace, welcoming parents and spouting information at speed.
Despite my haste, I even managed a little off the cuff joke. A few people laughed. Breath… Pause… Breath… ‘I can do this!’ I thought.
And then it went wrong.
As I turned to introduce my team, glossophobia overcame me.
‘This is our very experienced teacher Mrs G—-‘ I hastened, gesturing a little wildly to Mrs G.
‘And this is…’
I turned to our even more experienced teacher Mrs S and my mind went blank. How does one improve on ‘very experienced’? I was a wordsmith, who was lost for words.
‘And this is…. our… our… old h-h-HAT, Mrs S—–‘ I stuttered, in my moment of panic.
Poor Mrs S looked at me in barely-concealed horror. The assembled throng of parents looked aghast. I let out a nervous titter.
‘I mean… our experienced OLD HAND,’ I stammered lamely. ‘Yes, old hand!’
But it was too late. The damage was done. The word ‘old’ hung heavy in the air.
Mortified, I could feel my cheeks flaming as – ever the professional – poor Mrs S attempted to laugh it off.
Later that night, I lay in bed going over and over the phrase in my head. Old hat, old hat. I don’t think I’ve used the phrase ‘old hat’ in my whole life. Where the hell had it come from?!
In an attempt to make myself feel better, I even googled ‘old hat’. But the definition only made matters worse.
‘Banal… Out of fashion… outmoded ideas… tired and worn out… passe… antique… unstylish…’ The synonyms tumbled off the page accusingly.
Mrs S is someone I have a huge amount of respect for. And I had publicly insulted her in the worst possible way.
‘I’m never speaking in public again,’ I wailed to the husband.
‘You’re gaffe prone,’ said the husband, helpfully. ‘You’re basically the new Prince Philip. You can’t be trusted to be let loose in a public arena.’
The next day I trotted meekly into work, determined to keep my head down and my lips firmly closed.
In the school assembly that morning, I asked Mrs S if she would like to read her class’s poems or would she like me too.
‘Oh, I think you’d better read them,’ she said, with what I hoped was a wry smile. ‘I can barely see without my glasses.
‘I’m just so OLD HAT!’