Public Speaking – A Hair-Raising Experience

Square Mile Magazine  –  14 June 2010

There is nothing on God’s sweet earth that used to scare me more than getting up in front of a large group of half-cut characters I haven’t met before and attempting to entertain them with witty banter for twenty minutes. A year ago, given the choice, I would have preferred to have covered my gonads in Pedigree Chum and ran naked around Battersea Dogs home than attempt such stress-inducing foolishness. Unfortunately, a few months ago someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse to deliver an after-dinner speech and, with tightly clenched buttocks, I accepted the challenge. I did this partly because of my belief that we should all face our fears or we will be doomed to be controlled by them … and partly because of the vast amount of wonga I’d been offered!

It seems that I am not alone in fearing public speaking. Indeed, some studies suggest that ‘glossophobia’ ranks up there with the fear of death. One study even suggests that the amount of adrenaline coursing around the body of a newish actor just before taking to the stage is similar to that experienced by a soldier just before going ‘over the top’ in the First World War. Whilst I’m somewhat sceptical that trench-bound doctors were performing such tests rather than operating on machine gun wounds I can accept the point. I know only too well the sweaty-palmed, wide-eyed, heart-pounding terror that immediately precedes a speech to a big audience. Indeed, during my 12 year City career I used every trick in the book to avoid having to make presentations and speeches to large groups. I would either con a colleague into taking the rap or I would develop some kind of mysterious one day ‘throat infection’ at just the appropriate moment.

Unfortunately, whilst most people hate these public performances it is almost impossible to go through life without ever having to do them. Best man speeches, business presentations and other such obligations ensure that even the most timid of us occasionally have to stand up and reveal to our friends, colleagues or clients what hilarious, confident fellows we really are. And that’s the problem. Whenever one takes to the podium we all feel an enormous pressure to put on a great show and believe that our every stammer and nervous tic will be interpreted as a sign of our weakness and foolishness. Men particularly feel a huge pressure to never reveal any signs of vulnerability and City boys feel this pressure more keenly than most. What’s even worse for City workers is that they often have to speak publically for their job and so performing badly can not only be embarrassing but detrimental to their career prospects.

It was with these scurrilous thoughts rebounding around my fevered brain that I accepted an invitation to make a twenty minute after-dinner speech to 350 bankers in Hong Kong. I would be providing the ‘light entertainment’ just before the prizes were handed out at a black-tie awards ceremony. They wanted to use me because I used to be a stockbroker and because my book ‘Cityboy’ was quite popular over there. The fact the bloke that they usually used was busy that day may also have had something to do with it!

A representative of the magazine had previously asked me if I ever made after-dinner speeches and I had responded that I did them all the time. Now, this, as the observant reader may notice, was not strictly true though I had overcome my nerves on three separate occasions in the previous decade (as a best man, at a funeral and at The Oxford Union). Still, none of those events were scarier than what I now faced.

I spent half an hour asking the magazine’s rep what was expected of me and what the audience would be like and then spent a few days writing the speech – which was to be a mix of 70% humorous and 30% ‘serious’. The subject was to be the credit crunch and my ‘story’. My girlfriend and I arrived in Hong Kong the day before my ordeal and at 6pm on the next day, after having ran it by the missus another few times, I left alone with a heavy heart to face the music.

By the time the grand ballroom of the Conrad Hotel had been filled with 350 bankers my heart was pounding like a base drum. Things didn’t get any better when the MC’s very first gag went down like a lead balloon. He pretended to receive a call from his gay lover on his mobile as he approached the podium which, whilst not exactly a sophisticated joke, still could have garnered a few giggles. After his laughless five minute discourse he came up to me, patted me on the back and whispered in my sweaty ear ‘a tough crowd I’m afraid.’ My heart rate went up another notch – especially when I realised that the two thirds Chinese audience might not get some of my gags about Jordon or East Enders …

Dinner seemed to take hours but then suddenly I was called to the stage. I had asked the MC to give me an overly effusive introduction so that the very first thing I said might get a few laughs. I tottered up the stairs to the podium, paused for a few seconds and then said with mock surprise: ‘My God, after that introduction I can hardly wait to hear myself speak!’ A smattering of laughs put my nerves at ease somewhat and as I delivered each sentence I felt the fear ebb away. Soon I found myself having to look down at my notes less often and could hear my delivery grow slower and my voice grow more confident.

Some of my gags got the whole room laughing in an extremely satisfying way. Describing insider trading as like a German Joke (e.g. ‘no laughing matter’), explaining how three sheep tied to a pole in Wales is locally referred to as ‘a leisure centre’ and saying the capital of Iceland was ‘about £3.50’ were simple gags but successful ones. The joke that got the most laughs was the quote from my married colleague who described the 2008 financial crisis as worse than a divorce ‘because he’d lost half his wealth but was still married!’ However, certain anti-banker jokes, maybe unsurprisingly, didn’t go down too well and I perhaps should have realised that saying that most people would call seven investment bankers at the bottom of the ocean ‘a good start’ might not have proven a winner to an audience of 350 bankers! Still, by about half way through the speech I was actually enjoying it and the hearty round of applause I received on finishing it made me genuinely happy. I sat back down unable to control the big grin on my face.

Funnily enough, I’ve delivered a few more after dinner speeches since ‘Hong Kong Gate’ and each one was easier than the last. I am now considering joining an agency and doing it on a more professional basis. You get paid about £3-5K to make a twenty minute speech which has to be about the best pay around unless you’re a premier league footballer. In fact, that’s even better money than I received in the City for God’s sake!

I broke my cherry in Hong Kong and no longer regard after-dinner speaking as akin to rubbing my genitals with a cheese grater. The simple fact is that the experience does not have to be traumatic if you prepare well and remember that it will be over in ten or twenty minutes.

Believe me, if I can overcome my deeply-ingrained fear of this bizarre practice then so can you!

Thoughts ?

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