My parents came to America from the tiny island of Föhr in the North Sea off the coast of Germany and Denmark. My father worked as a clerk in New York City delicatessen stores and by the time my two older brothers and I were born, he had his own store. He dealt with the customers while my mother worked in the kitchen, making rice pudding, custards and potato salad. Their work ethic was incredible. And they never sought applause or praise for it.
To the contrary, they poked fun at other people—especially those they perceived as bragging or showing off. I adopted their cultural aversion to drawing attention to oneself, and throughout my early school years, I spoke when called upon but rarely volunteered to speak.
That worked until one day in fifth grade when I needed to stand in front of the class and summarize a news article. In anticipation of this event, I awoke feeling nauseous—what my mother called a “nervous stomach.” I imagined all sorts of things that could go wrong: I would forget my place, my classmates would laugh at me for some real or imagined transgression. Nothing catastrophic happened. But I can still recite the start of that speech. I spoke in a complete monotone, every bit of spontaneity squeezed out of my delivery.
This experience didn’t cure my fear of public speaking. Over the years to come, I dreaded everything from raising my hand in a classroom as a student to speaking out on behalf of my own children at a PTA meeting. Even at press conferences that I attended as part of my job as a magazine reporter, I hung back and watched as other journalists shouted questions.
The only thing worse was speaking before an audience of the people who knew me best, like my family or close friends. I imagined they would see right through me if I acted too full of myself (my mother’s words).
When I was in my early thirties, the magazine I worked for began experimenting with storytelling on television. Correspondents would go out with a film crew and narrate their stories, a new experience for reporters accustomed to working with a pad and pencil. Reading these scripts aloud was hugely difficult for me. I was told my delivery was too-sing-songy. Speaking assertively would have meant challenging those elemental fears about stepping on stage and owning my persona.
I couldn’t do it alone. So I signed up for an adult education course, called “How to face an audience without taking a tranquilizer.” The instructor, Sandy Linver, was a pioneer in what was then a new field of communication development. She had founded an organization called the Speakeasy, which was as much group therapy as speech coaching. When we gathered, each member would give a talk and the others would gently offer a critique. The talks were videotaped, and we could see ourselves as others saw us. What I saw surprised me: a woman with long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail—perfect for the park, but not the podium. “Eleanor, earth mothers are out,” said Sandy, urging me to cut my hair, seeing it as a metaphor. I did, and it was a transformative experience. When I showed up with shoulder-length hair to my next class, everyone clapped. I realized I didn’t have to be stuck in an outdated image. I could free myself to command the spotlight.
The Speakeasy course taught me that the key to public speaking was just doing it, over and over again, and learning to understand the anxious feelings that come with it, and how they dissipate. I learned that a few deep breaths can work wonders, as can mentally repeating a comforting thought or a childhood prayer. I do not strive to be free of all stress when making a public presentation, though, because anxiety can be positive, it pushes me to excel as long as it’s kept in check. That’s the balance to seek.
Even once I was able to speak in small groups, though, I never expected I’d end up talking before millions of people on TV. That came as a surprise—one of many on March 30, 1981. I was in the small pool of reporters accompanying President Reagan to the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C, where he was to give a speech. That day, he and his press secretary James Brady were shot. I was invited to appear that evening on a news program on PBS to recount the tragic events. As I sat in the studio fighting my anxiety, suddenly the image of the gravely wounded Jim Brady lying on the sidewalk and the awareness of how we almost lost the president jolted me. How could I think about my own minor fears after what I had witnessed? This wasn’t about me. That simple revelation eased my stage fright that night, and has continued to help calm me in many situations to this day. It’s not about me; it’s about the information that I wish to impart, or (in other settings) the argument that I want to make.
I’m still not immune to the fear, even all these years later. Those early feelings of terror still surface with regularity. And there’s still always that moment when I wonder if what I have to say is relevant to the audience, but I have learned that people are forgiving, they’re not expecting perfection. But now that rush of anxiety is replaced with a sense of confidence that I can do this. And when it goes well, there is an almost physical high that comes with conquering my fears.
Eleanor Clift is a Washington correspondent for the Daily Beast and a panelist on The McLaughlin Group. She is the author of Founding Sisters and the 19th Amendment ($21, amazon.com) and Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death and Politics ($15, amazon.com).
Follow her on Twitter: @eleanorclift