Every time I get a request to give a lecture or demonstration to promote my cookbook, I die a little inside. It's not that I don't want to talk about my book—I love my book! It just means I have to contend with one of my more troublesome personal demons: my terror of public-speaking.
Somehow I manage to force a smile and say, yes, of course, I’d be happy to stand up in front of dozens of complete strangers and try desperately to win them over with my disputable charms. Then I try to plot a way to be out of the country that day. It never works out.
During the past year, certain patterns have emerged in terms of how I prepare for my execution these types of events. Here’s the basic low-down:
1. STAY OUT OF THE WOODS
A month before the dreaded talk, I start limiting my trips to the woods so I don’t end up with poison ivy all over my face again. (Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, WTF? Fool me thrice, well, I haven’t thought up a suitable punishment for myself yet, so let’s hope that doesn’t happen.) While it would definitely be a unique character-building experience to give a presentation with my face cracking open and oozing mysterious liquids, this is not exactly a recipe for booming cookbook sales.
2. WRITE MY SPEECH
A week or so before the event, I start typing up the whole talk word for word. Notes are probably a better practice, but I’ve found that I need to have the whole script in my hand like a safety blanket just in case my mind goes totally blank. Which it can and will. In that case, I need a full sentence to fall back on, and I never know which sentence I’m going to need. Best to have them all at the ready just in case. With enough practice, I don’t need to refer to the script much at all, but I still need to have it in my hand to keep the panic at bay. (I also have notes in my phone in case I lose my script.)
3. FIND SUITABLE CLOTHING
Several days beforehand, I make sure I have a complete outfit ready and try it on. I don’t dress up very often, so this is harder than it sounds. I’m always missing something obvious, like shoes, and I need time to make a hasty, frantic shopping trip. Normally I don’t give a crap about what I’m wearing (hello, jeans that I’ve worn three days in a row), but if I look like an idiot, I’m going to feel like an idiot. And I don’t want to feel like an idiot right out of the gate.
For several days, I practice my talk in front of a mirror to make sure my written words flow naturally when spoken. They never do. I rewrite sentences and entire sections as needed and try not to panic. Then I time myself to make sure the talk fits within the expected parameters. People have suggested that I practice my talks in front of a few supportive friends. I don’t do that. The only thing more horrifying to me than getting up and speaking in front of a bunch of strangers is getting up and speaking in front of people I know.
The day before the event, I go to the gym. I plan a hard workout, but no so hard that I’m incapacitated the next day. Just enough to exhaust me to the point where I don’t have enough energy to rile myself up into a manic frenzy.
I make sure I have a printout of the directions to the venue in my purse. I usually use my phone’s navigation system to get there, but never underestimate the many ways your phone can betray you, including running out of charge halfway there when you forgot to bring the cord. Punctuality is not my strong suit, but in this case, I make an exception.
The night before the event, I make sure to get a good night’s sleep. I am a rare breed of person in that I can fall asleep under almost any circumstance. My Circadian rhythms are so deeply ingrained, even abject fear can’t interrupt them. This may be the one thing I have going for me. I also check my clock about 25 times to be sure the alarm is set to a.m., not p.m.
8. POWER POSE
The morning of the talk, I take a shower, eat breakfast, check the traffic, get dressed, and then strike a Power Pose. You can learn more about this concept here, but basically it involves standing in a Wonder Woman-like stance: hands on hips, feet shoulder length apart, head high. The idea is that if you look confident and powerful, you eventually start to feel that way, too. Sounds kooky, I know, but whatever will keep me from vomiting all over myself is fine by me. (Wearing my Wonder Woman underroos under my presentation outfit also helps.)
Once I get the car all packed up with what I need (cases of books, business cards, speech, baked good samples, napkins, toothpicks, rubber gloves, boxes of cooking equipment, signs, pens, water, phone, directions, SPEECH), it’s time to fill up the gas tank and hit the road. Once I’m on the highway, I turn on my music LOUD. Then I start singing. Actually, it’s more like shouting than singing. It’s shout-singing. I don't shout-sing loud enough to actually lose my voice, but loud enough to release a lot of the psychological pressure I'm feeling while also getting some practice projecting. I don’t have a very strong voice normally so this works well to get my vocal chords properly primed. I’m sure it looks completely ridiculous to any passengers riding by who might happen to notice me. I’ve seen kids with their hands and faces pressed against the back windows of their cars, necks craned in my direction. Nothing to do but wave.
10. BATHROOM BREAK
Ideally, I’ve gotten to my destination with plenty of time to spare so that I can chat “leisurely” with my host and set things up “calmly,” all while mentally trying to talk myself out of a nervous breakdown. During this period, I visit the bathroom a ridiculous number of times. No, I’m not snorting cocaine in there. Anxiety renders my bladder unable to hold even a milliliter of water. And yet anxiety also makes me incredibly thirsty. See 11.
11. GET WATER
Water is not only a refreshing thirst-quencher, but also a way to pause during a talk to catch my breath, gather my thoughts, and generally get a grip if nerves are getting the best of me. Maybe you might prefer coffee, or Scotch, but water is my drink of choice. A few sips here and there have saved me. Not too much, though. See 10.
12. REVIEW NOTES
By now, I’ve already exhausted how much time I can hide in the bathroom, and subsequently I’m standing at the makeshift dais as people are filtering in for the talk. Sure, I have my script, I’m looking at it, I might even be seeing some of the words, but really what I’m doing is trying to breath calmly, smile at people once in a while to assure the audience and myself that it will all be over soon, but not so wide that they think I’m a serial killer in a dress. Then the host will indicate we’re ready to start and that’s where the adrenaline kicks in and I don’t remember anything else that happens after that.
Needless to say, after all this hand-wringing and preparation, I'm grateful when people actually buy my book!