Unaccustomed As I Am: My Fear of Public Speaking - The Irish Times

My hands are trembling, I’m dripping with sweat and stumbling awkwardly through a cringe-inducing speech. The words jumble up, the jokes misfire and it’s only when someone shouts, “Can’t hear you!” that the stage fright truly takes over, leaving no toe uncurled.

That’s the scenario I envisioned when a friend asked me to be the best man at his wedding, casually giving just two weeks’ notice. After seven years together, James and his partner Tressan had decided to get married with as little fuss as possible. Any impulse to say, “Congratulations!” or even “Who gets married in December?” was sideswiped by an alarming prospect: I’d have two weeks to overcome my fear of public speaking. Two weeks to steel my nerves, improve my posture and project an air of charisma. “Two weeks to become a completely different person then, yeah?” said James, laughing wickedly.

I always wanted to be that gregarious personality who can light up a room and charm their way in or out of any situation. Things didn’t turn out that way. Throughout school, I was the kid who blushed at teachers’ questions and froze up around the opposite sex. Even today, I go quiet in groups, I automatically veer away from the loudest voice in the room, and I struggle to maintain small talk with people I don’t know.

In recent years, though, I’ve realised that insecurities, regrets and criticism only hold as much significance as we allow them. Learning to let go has been liberating, but confronting my biggest fear? That would be a test.

On the scale of challenges one faces in life, giving a speech may seem trivial. Yet fear of public speaking is so common that, as the old joke goes, most people would rather be lying in the casket than delivering the eulogy. If done well, however, a speech can be both memorable and moving – and James was possibly the only person I would even attempt one for.

We first met as teenagers taking all the same classes in college and, having travelled and worked together through the years, it’s fair to say James got the best possible head-start as a psychologist just by counselling me for so long. In a way, a speech on his wedding day would be drawing a line under that time in both our lives, but it would also offer the chance to craft a gesture of appreciation. I just needed to learn how to do it.

It took a week to shepherd sentiments into words. Consulting with friends who had been through the experience only heightened my apprehension. “I’m not going to lie to you,” one said. “It’s awful. Petrifying. You won’t be able to enjoy yourself until it’s over.” Another friend nodded gravely, adding: “Once you do this, you’ll be able to speak in any situation.”

Late-night calls to James about my progress elicited nervous groans. “It’s not too late for me to go with the no-best-man option,” he said, demanding the speech steer clear of his past and personality. “Look,” I retorted, “I can either say all this at the wedding or at your funeral – and we both know you’re far more likely to live longer, so it has to be now.”

With four days to go, I began typing up some notes and the speech materialised unexpectedly. Still, it seemed short. The word count added up to 666 – hardly auspicious – but maybe the stage fright would pad things out.

After absorbing YouTube tutorials on presentation skills, I began rehearsing to an empty room, imagining every pause filled with clicking cameras, awkward silences or distracted yawns. Saying the speech aloud revealed what worked and what needed tweaking, but seeing footage of myself in practice mode proved too excruciating to watch beyond the first minute. A friend implored me to recite the speech for him, but I couldn’t do that either. The self-conscious barrier wasn’t budging.

By the morning of the wedding, I’d contracted a cold and a last-minute trial run did not bode well. There was a false start, a 10-second gap in the middle and I forgot the most important paragraph.

I kept telling myself that I played a relatively minute part in the bride and groom’s special day. Any pressure was entirely self-applied, fuelled by the will to contribute something meaningful to the occasion, even if it was just a few words about James, even if I was just embarrassing the pair of us. “There’s no such thing as a stressful situation,” I reminded myself. “Anxiety is an optional reaction.”

But my inner critic wasn’t buying it, relishing all the best man horror stories people felt compelled to share with me. Even at the altar, waiting for the bride, the priest said he recently attended a wedding where the best man was so sick with nerves that they had to get the speech over with before the meal. James’s brother chipped in to say he’d been to one where the speech was skipped altogether because the best man wasn’t up to it.

As we filed into the dining hall, the sight of the microphone stand in the corner tightened my stomach. Despite repeated assurances from James to the contrary, I would have to act as MC, introducing the cutting of the cake and three other speeches. The dread built up steadily through dinner, leaving me mute.

When the moment finally came, I was sure the microphone could pick up my heartbeat. Suddenly the crowd was no longer faceless, the room filled with factors I hadn’t accounted for: the apathy of the kids’ table, the snicker at a serious moment, the unsettling stillness of a captive crowd.

Then, 30 seconds in, I took one glance at the cue card and the memorised rhythm took over. I avoided looking at James, knowing the sight of him squirming would rattle me, and just pretended to be someone else for five minutes. People laughed in all the right places (though nothing riotous), it felt like I forgot a bit (though I didn’t) and there was a moment where I should have paused for applause but moved on swiftly.

Afterwards, my inner critic had the night of his life, convinced that everyone’s praise was really sympathetic kindness. It was only the tears streaking the bridesmaid’s cheeks that signified something had resonated, and that was enough. James, meanwhile, was “mortified, but in a good way” and baffled by the transformation from my cadaver-like state to an assured storyteller exuding calmness.

The next morning brought a belated rush of euphoric relief. James called later that night to express how much it meant to him.

Despite the ordeal, overcoming that fear proved a valuable exercise in tackling negativity, letting go and moving on with a story to share. I’d only just begun to do that on Sunday when another friend said, “Well done. Think of it as a trial run for being my best man.”

Best man: Dos and Don’ts

  • The speech should reflect the groom’s personality, though self-deprecating humour and heartfelt sentiment is always a safe bet.
  • A foolproof structure is to welcome, acknowledge all involved, describe the groom and your relationship with him, transition from funny to serious, then toast.
  • Avoid unnecessary nostalgia. Don’t turn “Remember the time” into “You had to be there.”
  • Go slowly, make eye-contact and leave pauses for listeners to absorb what you’ve just said.
  • To appear natural, practise until it comes automatically. Memorising the rhythm and inflexions makes all the difference in landing a punch-line.
  • Keep things short and simple (ideally five to 10 minutes) but remember there’s a correlation between your effort levels and the crowd’s concentration.