WHEN GARY, MY boss, said in passing, "Oh, John wants you to give a presentation on mobile technology for the IT department’s summit in March," I was waiting for a "just kidding." It never came. "You know I’m not good in front of crowds, right?" I asked. "You’ll be fine," he said. "It’s just going to be our department, no biggie." Sure, for a 42-year-old, college-educated professional in New York City who was completely comfortable in his own skin, it wouldn’t have been a problem. It was just that whole comfortable thing I was uncomfortable with. I was being asked to give a command performance for the CIO, executive directors and rest of the 30-person IT management team. How about something a little less fear-inducing, like a few hours of nude waterboarding? I thanked Gary for the heads-up and immediately started thinking of ailments or tragedies that would allow me to bow out, head held high.
I haven’t always been such an introverted dolt in front of groups. Back in college I would get up in front of a classroom or auditorium and not give a shit what anyone thought of me.Wrong answer? So what. Forgot my lines? Who cares. Fly was open? Enjoy the view. It didn’t matter.Then at some point in my mid-thirties, for a reasons completely unknown to me, I became deathly afraid of speaking in front of groups. I was afflicted with what I refer to as Adult Sudden Shyness (ASS), and have since mastered the art of avoiding public speaking situations.
Unfortunately, in the weeks leading up to my technology presentation, my ASS started overshadowing all aspects of my life.The "scared" me considered lying to get out of it, while the rational me said I couldn’t let this control my life. Unfortunately, the rational me won. For weeks I worked on my presentation, tweaking and reworking to make it perfect. If I could just baffle them with brilliance, maybe they wouldn’t notice my ASS. No such luck.
On the day of the presentation, I walked into the basketball-court-sized executive dining room for the first time. There was a large video screen at one end and in front of that a podium with—oh, fuck—a microphone. I could feel my ASS flaring up.The tables were set up in an elongated "U" shape, with all seats facing the podium. I grabbed a bottle of water and headed to an empty part of the table, avoiding small talk wherever possible Lost in a world of worry, I heard Gary and John, our CIO, talking just behind my chair.Well, what I thought was my chair. Looking around I realized I was sitting in the very center of the row of tables directly facing the podium, right where I’d expect a CIO to sit. As I gracelessly stumbled to my feet to find another chair, John put out his hand and said, "No, stay… I’ll sit over here." I’m sure it was how Peter would have felt had he sat in the boss’ seat at that Last Supper.
As I sat waiting for the inevitable, my mouth kept getting drier, as if I had just ingested a handful of sand. I grabbed my half-empty bottle of water and took a big swig, hoping for an opportunity to get up and grab more water before it was my turn. "And our next speaker is going to show and tell us about the latest wireless technologies." John announced, "Steven? Podium’s yours."
This was it. I grabbed my now lessthan-a-third-full water bottle, pushed my chair back and headed to the front of the room. I loaded the presentation and pulled up slide 1 of 13. Finally, I looked over the podium at all the people watching me. By this time my heart was beating so hard I feared my audience could see the rhythmic movement of my shirt. After the first few slides, I thought I’d actually get through it, sans humiliation. But that was before my damn mouth decided to do its best paper towel imitation and suck up every bit of its own moisture. It quickly became this little game my body was playing with me: dry mouth, drink water, say a few lines, dry mouth, drink water, say more lines. I repeated this until the bottle was empty, two-thirds of the way through my presentation.
I continued on as best I could, but then I started hearing the clickingslapping noises the mouth makes when not properly lubricated. I looked around the room. A few people started looking away rather than making eye contact; they were embarrassed for me. I then looked over to Gary who was, as subtly as possible, making a "wrap-it-up" signal with one hand. At that point there was no denying it. My ASS was out in plain view for senior management to scrutinize.
I ended my presentation to polite applause, grabbed my empty water bottle and headed back to my seat. Any illusions I had that people didn’t notice were shattered when, on my way out of the room, two people came up to me separately and said how badly they felt for me and that they had wanted to bring me another bottle of water. ("Hey, I saw you were drowning and thought about throwing you a life vest.") But I survived. And even that cloud had the proverbial silver lining—it’s been five years and three months since "the incident" and no one has even hinted at me giving a presentation or, for that matter, speaking in public. I’d say I won.