April 21, 2024


Wwhen I was younger, I was so afraid of public speaking that I went out of my way to avoid it. If forced to address a crowd, I wouldn’t sleep for days before because I would run disaster scenarios over and over in my head. When it came to the actual event, my hands would be clammy, my breathing would be erratic and I would speed through my speech in a desperate need to just be done.

At university I chose subjects simply because they didn’t involve class presentations. I never applied for jobs that meant addressing a crowd. And when my best friend asked me to speak at her 21st birthday, I drank so much cheap wine that I gulped down a sentence or two and then fled outside in shame.

My fear did not come from a lack of confidence. At school I was the first to audition for a role in a play. Even a singing party when I couldn’t hold a note. On stage I was fearless because I acted in a role that was separate enough from who I was to keep me safe. But as soon as someone required me to play myself in front of a crowd, I was a mess.

When I became a children’s author, I thought that publishing books would mean that I would avoid ever having to address a crowd again. I had an image of myself writing away at home in my pajamas and never meeting a single reader.

How wrong I was.

When I published my first young adult novel 10 years ago, I was invited to speak at a writer’s festival. I said yes without really thinking much about it. I didn’t know the festival attracted thousands of students and some of the biggest names in publishing. I just thought I’d have a casual chat with some teenagers about ghost stories and how my book came about.

The festival was in March in Queensland. It was hot and I packed only my black Melbourne clothes, complete with a pair of tall, heavy boots. I didn’t know anyone, but a couple of writers kindly invited me to dinner the night before we started and I slowly began to realize that perhaps I was ill-equipped for what was to come.

The next morning I arrived at the large marquee setup outside on the lawn. Two hundred faces stared at me as I walked in. The air was thick and muggy. Five teenagers sat nearby in the front row. They kept extending legs so I had to dodge them as I walked up and down with the mic in front.

I was sweating before I even opened my mouth.

My publisher came to show her support. Which was lovely, but it doubled my fear. Talking to strangers was hard enough, but talking to strangers in front of someone I knew and respected was even worse. I could see her in the back row smiling at me.

Then the rain started to fall. Heavy and hard. The marquee roof began to leak and water dripped onto the whiteboard where the pens no longer wanted to write. I only had one book to talk about and none of the students seemed to have read it. Or cared. The five in the front row started heckling and making jokes about Scooby-Doo because I was talking about ghosts, causing me to lose my seat. Out of my depth I naturally started to panic and forget my words. I could feel the tears starting. And I didn’t know what to do.

And then a teenage boy in charge of technology for the marquee grabbed the spare microphone and began his own ghost story re-enactment. The story was exciting, full of fear and suspense, and better than anything I’ve said so far. I used the five minutes he spoke to settle and prepare. When he was done, I thanked him, knowing that he had saved me. And I managed to hum through the rest of the session intact.

I had five more presentations that week, none as bad as the first. And by the end of the festival I could laugh at my performance because apart from being hacked and blushing every 30 seconds, stumbling over words and almost crying, I survived it. And for someone as terrified of public speaking as I’ve always been, it seemed like a huge victory.

I knew I had to learn somehow to overcome my fear. I grilled other writers for their tricks and advice. I added slide shows, reading and a question and answer session to my presentation which meant I had markers to work on. I was still terrified, but a need to earn a living meant I kept going, and the more presentations I did, the more practiced I became at surviving the unexpected.

I doubt I’ll ever enjoy the idea of ​​presiding over hundreds of students, but sometimes I surprise myself by enjoying it more than I ever thought possible. And sometimes I host a session and experience that charge that actors must feel when connecting with a crowd, and it makes me drive home with a smile. And on the other days, when the IT doesn’t work and nobody laughs at my jokes, I now know that an hour is just an hour, and at the end of it I can leave.

Nova Weetman is an award-winning children’s author. Her coming-of-age memoir, Love, Death & Other Scenes, is forthcoming from UQP in April 2024



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