Day 195. Performance Anxiety

So.  Now you know my secret.  Yeah.  The proverbial cat’s out of the bag.  Even the mere thought of having to stand up in front of a crowd, or a group, and speak used presentingto be enough to send me into a tizzy.  To freak me right out.  To give me a huge case of the jitters.  To ruin my day.

You know, because yesterday I wrote about the first time I gave a speech.  What a nightmare it was.

Well, it didn’t get better, I’m sorry to say.  Not for a while.

Let’s fast forward to when I moved to Toronto, in 1985.  To work for Ogilvy (ad agency).  And the first MAJOR client presentation I was in, after getting there.  I was working on American Express.  Major, in itself.  Cardmember benefits are a vitally important part of their business, or at least it was back then.  Don’t know about now.

It was important because their exclusive selection of benefits was a huge competitive advantage for them.  It was one of the reasons consumers wanted to carry the card.  The project I was working on, was the launch of four new benefits.

Very important.

Which, in itself, was enough to give me a heart burn.

We worked on it for several weeks.  It was tough to crack.  Tons of extremely late nights and weekends at the office.  Finally, we were ready to present to the client.

Talk about a command performance.

The presentation was to be held at the Agency.  In the large boardroom.  All agencies have several boardrooms.  Most, small.  And always one, huge one.  With a table that stretches out forever.  And I mean forever.  This is for the BIG presentations.  And new business pitches.  Empty, the room is intimidating.  The start time was 6:00 pm.

Nervous-making all on its own.  Because it meant I had all day to think about what was ahead.  When all I wanted to do, was get it over with.

Several creative teams were involved.  Creative Directors.  Research people.  Suits up the yin-yang.  Broadcast producers.  Print production folks.  Our Agency CEO was going to be there.  Just as many people, if not more, coming from the client side.  AND, the President of American Express.  I’d never met him before, let alone presented to him.

I was catatonic.  I tried everything I could think of, to get out of it, to no avail.  If there’d been anything sharper than a pencil laying around, I would happily have stabbed myself with it.

As luck would have it, I was scheduled to present last.  LAST!!  As luck would have it, the client contingent was late.  As luck would have it, there was about a half hour of small talk before we finally got started.  As luck would have it, the client (the President) chose to discuss, at length, each concept as it was presented.  And I DO mean at length.

As luck would have it, by the time it was my turn, it was about 10 pm.    I was tired.  Nervous.  Over-wrought, really.  And unprepared.  Because we had never rehearsed.  So unusual for Ogilvy.  We used to rehearse presentations to death.  Most agencies do.  But, for some reason, we hadn’t.  Shocking for such an important presentation, but there you have it.

Never will I forget how awful I was.  Never.  Never ever.  I cringe to this day, and this happened all those many years ago.

No, it’s not what you think.  I didn’t forget anything.  Didn’t forget to show the work, God forbid.  I was so nervous, and my hands were shaking so badly, the copy deck I was holding was literally flapping in the breeze.  I kid you not.  When I had to hold it up so I could read it, I couldn’t see the words, because the sheets of paper were moving so furiously, it looked like I was fanning myself.

Got the hands under control and my voice cracked.  My mouth was as dry as the desert.  My tongue was wooden.  I could barely speak.  I have a ‘big’ voice, naturally.  Except when I’m terrified, as it turns out.  What came out of my mouth was little more than a whisper.  I could just barely be heard.

Despite my poor performance, the meeting was a success.  We sold all the work.  While everyone was slapping each other on the back, I slunk out of the room.  I wanted to cry.  I think I did cry, once I got home.  And it took a lot for me to go into the office the next day.  I was mortified.  No one said anything to me about it, though.

You have no idea how difficult it was for me to ‘get back up on the horse’ again.  But of course, I had to.  Like I mentioned yesterday, presenting is a way of life in the ad industry.  It’s what we do.

In hindsight, I learned a lot from the experience.  Mostly, whether anyone else rehearses or not, you (meaning me), must ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS rehearse.  Over and over again.  Rule number one.  Never, NEVER, to be forgotten.  There were some other lessons, too.  But the biggest one, was to come later.

Another couple of mediocre (at least to my mind) presentations followed.  One of my heroes (and mentors) in the agency was THE most amazing presenter.  I tried and tried to copy her style, but it just never worked for me, the way it worked for her.  She was flawless.  Charming, engaging, smooth, focussed, strategic.  Always touching on the key points, easily.  She could have sold swamp land in Missouri.

One day, after a meeting, I talked to her about it.  She nailed my problem.

Told me I was trying too hard to be perfect.  Assured me no one was.  Shared some of her miserable experiences with me.  She also told me I had to find my style.  You can’t copy someone else’s.  In those days agencies had the money for training programs.  All kinds, negotiation skills, selling, business math, you name it.  There was always some kind of training going on.

Pat suggested I take presentation skills training the next time it was offered.  Luckily, there was a session coming up.  There were six or eight of us in the class.  What shocked me, was I wasn’t alone.  There were other people who were just as uncomfortable presenting as I was.  I’d thought it was just me.  The other surprise was, some people were way worse than me.  I hadn’t thought that was possible.

For three days we were all locked in a boardroom together with the trainers and a cameraman.  Oh yes, they film you, so you can see your progress.  And so they have something to review at breaks and at night, so they can give you proper feedback.  We were taught how to make eye contact, with the audience.  How to hold the layouts, and go through them in a way clients can follow.  How to read copy and ‘sell’ it.  How to talk while moving around the room, so people are forced to focus on you.  How to have FUN.  In those three days we presented dozens of times.

By the time we were done, we had all found our own style.  Obviously it needed to be perfected, but we all had found something that worked for us.  The improvement in each and every one of us was simply unbelievable.  We were unrecognizable.

Over the days and weeks, months and years that followed I got better and better at it.  Even when I was only presenting to a few people in the Agency, I made it a formal presentation so I could practise and hone my newly-acquired skills.  I began to enjoy myself.  Dare I say, I began to look forward to client presentations.  Then I forced myself to accept every invitation I received to speak at industry conferences in both Canada and the U.S.

Ironically I had become a sought-after speaker.  Once, when I had a timing conflict and was forced to say “no”, the person who’d called me whined and said, “Oh, please, you have to agree.  You’re a big draw”.  ME!  The quivering mass of nerves had become a ‘big draw’.  I got off the phone and had to laugh.  Not something I would ever have envisioned.  Not even in my wildest dreams.

And it was the woman (Pat), in the Agency I’d so admired, so looked up to, who’s responsible.  “Be yourself”, she’d said.  The skills I needed were inside me the whole time.  I just needed to ‘find’ myself, first.

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18 thoughts on “Day 195. Performance Anxiety

  1. I am exactly the same way, I have never been a good public speaker EVER, in school my voice would crack, cold sweats awful…a few years ago my job required that I speak to around 75 high school/college students at a time about filling out thier tax forms and other payroll related items…absolutely hated this and felt like such an idiot wringing my hands constantly speaking too quickly in order to get it over with…and then thinking how will these kids ever take me seriously after this….it was prolonged by the fact that I needed to answer any questions afterwards and walk around helping as they filled out forms, then having to show them how to use the time clock with shakey sweaty hands! I am so glad those days are over !!!! I wish I’d had the “presentation skills” you were offered, not being able to speak in public is absolutely humiliating.
    Great post!

  2. I wish all agencies would invest in their people as Ogilvy did with you (and me too). It can make a huge difference in a person’s life. Thank you for sharing your “secret”. Never would have guessed it in a million years!

    • Of all the agencies I ever worked for, Ogilvy invested the most in training. It was a HUGE initiative and a HUGE commitment they made in their people. But it really paid off for them. And backfired to some degree, because it also made their people the most sought-after. They were always being raided. I wonder if they still put as much time and money and effort into training. I hope so, but doubt it. What they did for me really changed my life. Even I don’t believe I’m the same person.

      • That is music to my ears. My background is general human resources but my “home core” is training and development. Training really does pay off for companies and you are proof. Training makes people grow which makes the company grow. (It’s also the first area they cut back on in economic down times.) You also hit the nose on the head when you said to practice speeches. If you practice so the words come naturally, especially the transitions, you are much more comfortable.

      • The training budget is one that should never be cut, but alas it always is. Companies get paid back a hundred-fold for whatever they spend on making their people smarter, better and more confident.

  3. Isn’t it wonderful how learning from others in a structured way, can make such a difference? Way back, my course was purely on getting over the fear of public speaking, not how to give a good presentation, just how not to sabotage yourself! I learned very very valuable things there, how to simply stand in front of a room with everyone looking and “claim my space”. Like you, I thought I was one of the worst ever. At school I would stammer, sweat and blush so furiously that my eyes would actually tear up just from the blushing reaction – then other kids would think I was crying which made it all even that much worse! I got into the habit of avoiding wherever humanly possible, so years later my course definitely changed me too.

  4. I know exactly how you felt, speaking in front of people or just speaking to people about your product is very hard. I always try to fake like I’m doing a good job and usually my “audience” never catches on that my heart is racing out of my chest.

    • Thanks. Thanks to Pat Harvie and some training it stopped being difficult long ago. But prior to that it was a misery. Do you remember Pat? She worked upstairs in the general agency and came down to direct a couple of years before she retired.

  5. Despite being trained in speech and drama teaching, I always hated any form of public speaking. Learning lines and speaking a poem or acting in a play were one thing—and I spent my childhood doing those—but giving a presentation or speech was quite another. I agree with you that facing up to your fear is the way to get over it. In 2008, I began a new career as a university lecturer. My first semester, I was assigned to a unit with 600 students across three campuses. I had to deliver two-hour lectures in an enormous three-tiered lecture theatre, with a microphone, and a spotlight on me. Not only that, I had to operate all the technology, such as a PowerPoint presentation, from the lectern. If I didn’t speak, I didn’t have a job. I was cured!

  6. Being a horribly self-conscious person, I have forced myself into some very public scenarios – speech contests, taekwondo tournaments, improv comedy. The worst experience ever was singing for a choir contest in 10th grade. I was horrible and my legs shook so badly that people in the back of the auditorium could see it. So, while everything else is still on the table, singing is not!
    As I explained to my daughter, we practice and rehearse things to death so that under pressure of performance, muscle memory can keep a rein on the adrenaline.

    • I swear I’m tone deaf so singing has never been an option for me. An ex once told me he was going to start a group called Fransi & The No-Tones. That silenced me forever — at least as far as music is concerned :). But you are right. To overcome this stuff, we must force ourselves to do the things that scare us.

  7. Barbara Streisand struggled with devastating performance anxiety to the point where she quit her career. What brought her back? Her statement that “if Bill Clinton wins I will sing again”. He won and she went into therapy. I don’t have performance anxiety for speaking. I am a “class clown”. But, like Barbara, I have a rare singing voice and I FREAK OUT when I go to sing. No matter how much I practice. There is performance anxiety that is natural and will fade with practice, and there is the kind that is pathologic. So what do I do? I record it. Give me a mic and a program and I am fine. I also take Clonazapam, the drug of choice if one must perform. It removes the worst of the shaking and fainting symptoms. This problem changed the whole course of my life from vocal performance to nursing. But if one must choose another career, what could be better?

    • I’m all for nurses! The world doesn’t need another singer but the more nurses the better. I volunteer and get to see some of THE best in action.

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