Today I had to speak in front of a fair-sized group for the first time in ages. These were people interested in patient engagement at the Cancer Centre. I had to stand at a podium in an auditorium and sustain the audience’s attention for 3 minutes. Yes, precisely 3 minutes. But since I was out of practice, I probably spent about 3 hours (30 hours?) preparing. You see, I wanted to be engaging and funny and interesting for all 180 seconds.
Way back when I was other- and self-employed, organizing my thoughts and speaking to groups, small and large, was an important component of my job. What is therapy if not talking to someone, or family counselling if not talking to a group? Every so often I’d even give a lecture on an area of expertise. I developed an ease with public speaking because I was able to convince myself that I probably knew more about my subject matter than anyone else in the room. (This logic didn’t work when I was presenting to other psychologists, unfortunately, so in those situations, I’d rightly panic.) Sometimes I bombed, but I could usually pull it off.
Today, however, I had to talk about myself. I don’t really like to focus on me; I’m much better at focussing on other people. That’s why I’m a psychologist. But for three whole minutes, I would be the centre of attention. I was to talk about a memorable experience I’d had at the Cancer Centre.
I tried to use that “I’m the expert” logic to prepare for today too, although I couldn’t fall back on my professional expertise this time. I do, however, know better than anyone what my cancer-care experience has been, what has or hasn’t worked for me, and what is important to me.
And I told myself I can’t really control other people’s interest in my story. Maybe they are distracted for reasons I don’t know, maybe they have an attention deficit–hey, I could help them with that!– maybe they just didn’t get enough sleep last night. I accept that I’ll never engage everyone in an audience, kind of.
I have to tell myself these things if I ever want to do something like this again. As a volunteer speaking to the patient’s cancer-care experience, I’ll need to trust that my own impressions are important enough to share with other people. I believe that enough to want other people to read my blog, but writing is different than talking to people: if people are disinterested in the blog, they can just stop reading. I’ll never know. If anyone tunes me out to my face or, even worse, responds in a way that invalidates my experience, I’m sure I’ll be unsettled. We all need to feel like people are listening if we risk sharing aloud.
In the end, I pulled it off. My panic lifted as soon as I got going, a few people made eye contact, and a few others laughed. The first time is always the hardest, right? Next time I’ll remind myself that it takes longer than three minutes to bore people.