Public speaking can be downright frightening. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
It is astonishing to me how quick we are to try and hide our fear when it surfaces. In the human narrative, fear is a part of being human. It is as primal as a heartbeat.
Fear (or nerves) get a bad rap when they show up uninvited at inconvenient times. As soon as they show up, most people go out of their way to suppress them or hide them to avoid the discomfort that accompanies them – namely, shame, guilt, and embarrassment.
This is is where the trouble starts. Whenever you attempt to suppress an emotion as raw as fear, a “tight” version of you emerges. In other words, that side of you that is boring, dull, and uninteresting. But if you try to fight your nerves, you’ll be fighting a losing battle. It’s like the Greek myth of Tantalus, who was made to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink. The more you fight your nerves, the worse it gets.
According to psychologists, the number one reason why we get nervous is because we are afraid of what other people will think of us when they see us nervous. We want others to see us as relaxed.
Strictly speaking, nerves are energy – albeit energy going in the wrong direction. The challenge is thus, “How can I channel my nerves in a way that makes them helpful instead of debilitating?”
It doesn’t take long for actors to learn that the stage is a terrible place to hide. The actor is on display for the entire audience to see just like a famous Michelangelo sculpture resting on a pedestal in the Academia Gallery in Florence. As if that is not intrusive enough, the audience’s credibility detectors are always out, probing and palpating the actor like the tentacles of an octopus.
When something doesn’t seem right, they instantly detect the contradiction without so much as a blink of the eye. They hear and see subtle differences. They hear the difference in the sound of words. They pick up on a nervous twitch. Even the smallest inconsistencies between the chosen words, the sound words, and the physical words are magnified with the absolute clarity of a stethoscope placed against the chest to listen to the rhythm of a heart beat.
It is for this reason that actors are taught to truthfully express what they are feeling in the moment – as awkward and uncomfortable as it might be – because the audience has already detected it and any attempt to disguise or conceal it will be viewed as a thinly-veiled attempt to deceive the audience. The actor’s credibility will sink faster than a lead balloon and any willful suspension of disbelief that had previously been established will be shattered as abruptly as a lightbulb exploding by the electrical excitation of a filament.
Not surprisingly, a fundamental tenet of acting is to allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling, without judging or censoring it. In other words, if you’re nervous, then allow yourself to feel nervous. Don’t fight it.
Since beginning my training as an actor, my brain has been rewired to view nerves in a different light. I view them as positive energy. They reveal something that is sorely missing in society today: real human behavior. They allow others to see the real you: the side of you that is not perfect, proper, and put together (and I dare say, flawed) but that lights up a room with the radiance of a hundred wax candles.
The “common man” can more easily relate to you when your guard is down and when you’re not trying to present a version of yourself that you feel you have to present in order to be liked and to win the approval of others. Not to digress, but the excessive need for approval has its own problems. It is a cruel master. You can spend your whole life currying favor and it will take its toll on your mental and physical well-being. It is for this reason that I refuse to live my life for approval.
Why so much ado about letting go? When you have freedom, a richer version of you emerges. And this will not be lost on the jury. You will be admired for your bravery and courage to be your true authentic self – as raw and unseemly as it might be – in an environment as adversarial as the Roman Coliseum.
I realize that this runs counter to the conventional norms that society has established in order to guarantee acceptance and ward off the pain of rejection, which is often viewed as the most destructive emotional pain for the havoc that it wreaks on our self-esteem. In fact, psychologists have recently discovered that the same areas of our brain become stimulated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain.
The first step toward any mind-shift is approaching it with an open mind. For me, this means taking a gigantic leap of faith and surrendering to my nerves instead of suppressing them. This is easier said than done. Two vital components are patience and making peace with where you currently are. Experience has taught me that the only way to get to where you want to go is to first make peace with where you are.
There is a brilliant story that offers a ton of inspiration.
“Once there was a student who wanted to learn about Zen. So he approached the house of a great Zen master. The master, in a moment of uncharacteristic graciousness, invited the student inside.
They sat down to tea and the master asked the student, ‘Why have you come?’ The student opened his mouth and started to babble. A torrent of words poured forth … On and one the student talked. The master blinked, then set to work making tea. He set out cups, ground the tea leaves, and boiled water while the student kept talking.
The young man only shut his mouth when the master started to pour the tea. The old man filled the student’s cup until the tea reached the brim and overflowed, running all over the table, scalding hot. ‘My God!’ cried the student. ‘What have you done?’
The old man stopped pour and said, ‘Your mind is like this cup of tea. How can I put anything in it when it’s already full? If you wish to learn Zen, you must bring me an empty cup.'”
Meditation is a helpful way to find your empty cup. Begin by closing your eyes. Don’t worry. I’m not going to weird you out by going “Star Wars” on you and asking you to, ,”Reach out” and tell me, “What do you see?” However, I am going to ask you to go inward and scan your body for any sensations that beckon your attention. Acknowledge the presence of these sensations. Breathe into them. Inhale and exhale.
If you are feeling nervous or uneasy, allow yourself to feel nervous or uneasy. How do they manifest themselves? Do your nerves manifest themselves in the form of a rapid heartbeat, tightness in your chest, tingling in your fingertips, clenched fists, or a lump in your throat the size of a crater?
Don’t judge this energy. Instead, know that this is your truth right now. And whatever it might feel like is okay. In fact, by bringing all of your energy into the courtroom and refraining from negatively labeling it, or trying to get rid of it, you reclaim your power.
Breathe in this energy and say, “I am here now.” Exhale. Now you’re in the present moment.
When you own where you are right now and are prepared to share your truth, you will enter the courtroom with a deep knowledge that who you are is enough and will leave the courtroom knowing that you did your best.
Can you commit to letting go and allow what’s going to happen to just happen? In other words, allow your nerves to take control. The primary objective is to CONNECT – connect with the sensations in your body, with your breath, your voice, and your environment. Feel the sensations in your body. Let your voice be connected to those feelings and to express them openly and freely. For example, “I feel tightness in my chest.” “I feel tingling in my fingertips.”
It all comes back to the simplicity of breathing and taking in your environment. This is the essence of what it means to be present. Always remember to breathe, observe what’s in front of you, and acknowledge what’s happening inside of your body. Breathe into the areas of your body where you feel the most tension no matter how ridiculous or absurd it might sound. For example, if you feel tension in your temples, then breathe into your temples.
When you’re connected to your body, you are much more alive. This allows for your argument to burst forth like a gushing spring.
Fear not. Nerves don’t last long. Before you know it, they’re gone. In the nineteenth century, there was a great English drama critic named William Hazlitt. He said of the great English actor Edward Kean, that watching his emotion subside after a big scene from Shakespeare was like watching the tide go out. This captures the essence of how numb I feel after my nerves dissipate.
I’ve confronted fear many times in my own life, but none worse than during my first jury trial. It’s a painful story for me to tell but one that has had a deep impact on me both as a lawyer and as a person.
Before I begin, I need to thank a special person who I look up to and admire for giving me the courage to tell this story. Our stories are very similar. Had Mr. Spence never shared his story in his runaway national bestseller, “How To Argue And Win Every Time,” I don’t believe that I would have had the courage to tell mine.
My first brush with vulnerability in the courtroom was about 10 years ago as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed public defender. I was about to make my closing argument and the next 20 years of my client’s life depended on how convincingly I could make it. I watched the jury walk in and heard the judge utter those frightful words: “Ladies and gentlemen. You will now hear closing arguments. Mr. DeBlis, you can begin.”
Fear shot through my body like a bolt of lightning. My heart was racing and I had a boulder-sized lump in my throat. My voice cracked like an adolescent’s as I uttered the first word of the gratuitous salutation, “Ladies and gentlemen …” My legs felt wobbly and unsteady. Several seconds went by in silence. The seconds felt like minutes. All the while, I could feel my face turning all different shades of red, my palms sweating, and my hands shaking. I felt the gazes of the jury, the judge, the prosecutor and my colleagues boring through me. In that moment, the most vulnerable I have felt in my entire life, I wished that the ground would open up and swallow me into a dark abyss, never to be seen or heard from again.
Worse still, out of the corner of my eye, I could see my client’s face — frozen in horror. As hard as it was to come to terms with my own shame, I now had a much larger problem: the feeling that I had let my client down. I tried to regain my composure, but the only sounds that I could summon were unintelligible “umms” and “ahhs.”
Then something strange happened. Out of nowhere, I blurted out, “I wish that I wasn’t so afraid.” This mortifies me to this day. The expressions on the faces of the jurors were of pure astonishment. While they could see and feel the outward manifestations of my fear, the last thing they had expected me to do was admit it. The tension was palpable.
So I continued: “I care deeply about Johnnie. What scares me is that I won’t be able to make the kind of argument that he deserves in his darkest hour — that I won’t measure up.” My fear slowly began to recede and the argument took on a life of its own. I no longer had to struggle in order to find the words to express the feelings that were welling up inside of me. Instead, they came out of me truthfully, from the heart.
When I finished, I sat down, utterly drained. Although my heart was still racing and my carotid artery was pulsating so violently that it was bulging out of my neck, I was no longer in a state of panic. Don’t get me wrong: the argument had been riddled with enough defects and false starts to cause my fourth-grade English teacher to roll over in her grave. However, it was an argument that was as real and honest as I was in that moment. And the jury agreed, returning a judgment of acquittal for my client.
The lessons I learned from this experiences were priceless. First, I learned that I had experienced the proverbial “fight” or “flight” response. Cynics would say that by confessing my fear, I acted cowardly and chose “flight.” No doubt these are the same folks who equate emotional vulnerability with weakness. As for me, I feel as though I confronted my fear head on and stared it down until it retreated like a whimpering hyena with its tail between its legs.
Second, it taught me the power of emotional vulnerability and how the confession of fear is perhaps the most exquisite expression of vulnerability.
Thanks to my newfound love of acting and my training as an actor, I have learned not to be ashamed of my fear. This is not to say that I no longer feel it squalling in my belly whenever I stand up to make my argument or whenever I begin the cross-examination of an expert witness who possesses more knowledge than I do.
But instead of running away from it, I now embrace it. I have, as Gerry Spence so eloquently says, become the “master of my fear.”