Back in the early 80s, when I was about 23, I landed this great job where I traveled around the country about 80% of the time teaching people how to use their new phones.
It was a great job for a young single gal. I traveled to many of the major companies in most of the major cities, and four times a day, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon, I gave 30-40 minute presentations on how to use the new phone system. Basically I worked four hours a day and was done by 3:30. Suh-weeet!
The first time I went on a training trip, I went with this older lady named Connie to a large aerospace concern out on Long Island. And by older lady, I mean that she was the same age I am now. That hurt just a little to write that last sentence.
She gave the first two morning presentations while I observed and then I was to give the afternoon presentations.
That afternoon, in my first group were about twelve not easily amused, scowling executives extremely serious about the millions of dollars they had just invested in their new phone system. And little old blond, wet behind the ears, uneducated me was there to teach them how to use it. I’m sure the sight of me in my $20 polyester business suit inspired all due confidence.
I knew my material. I had it memorized. I knew the phones and I knew the system and how they worked inside and out. Yet I was nervous. Connie told me to relax and take a few deep breaths and that I would do great.
I stood up to make my way to the front of the room. I turned and looked down at her hoping for something, but I didn’t know what, maybe her calm and poise, maybe that she could somehow gift that to me. I also hoped that a meteorite might hit the building in the next 5 seconds. But it didn’t, so I just stood there looking at her. She looked back at me. And blinked a few times. Finally she made a sweeping motion with both of her hands. “Go,” she said.
So I turned and I went.
I went to the front of the room. I stood in front of a dozen scowling Ernest Borgnines, all with their arms crossed across their fat executive bellies, some clenching unlit cigars between their teeth, all waiting for me to confirm for them that they had not wasted their company’s money on my phone system.
I swallowed hard with great difficulty. I seemed to have no saliva. I opened my mouth to speak and no words issued forth. Not one.
I opened my mouth again, hoping to hear the sound of my voice, hoping to hear “Hi. My name is…” But all that came out was a sad, pathetically tiny squeak.
I remembered that Connie had told me to take a few deep breaths before I started, so I did. And then I took another.
And then another.
And then I couldn’t stop myself and I began to hyperventilate. And now instead of making a tiny squeaky kitten sound, I was making an unpleasant sound that I liken to the sound that the last of the water makes as it is being sucked down the bathtub drain. Not the sound you want to hear in a conference room.
As I’m making the bathtub sucking sound, unhappy, scowling, and now, slightly alarmed executive faces stare back at me.
My heart was beating so hard, I could feel it in my throat. I looked down and saw my right foot thumping like a rabbit. My mind sent my foot a message to cut it out, but my heart was in my throat and so the message did not get past my neck. And the fact that my heart was in my throat was probably all that stood in the way of me throwing up. So I count that as a blessing.
Somehow, I do not know how, I managed to pull it together. I got through my 30 minute presentation. It was not great, but I got through it without throwing up or fainting and at that point, that was all that mattered.
I’ve always suspected that the executives went home to their wives that night and told them about how in the conference room at work that day was the most ridiculous specimen of a human they ever saw.
After my presentation, I sat down and the first thought I had was, “I can’t WAIT to do that again!”
It was terrifying, but it was also exhilarating to go into that dark tunnel and come out the other side. And I wanted to do it again.
The next time was a little better, I didn’t hyperventilate, as much, and the time after that it was a little better. By the second week, I could give those presentations in my sleep. Over the next several years I went all over the country giving the good news. You’ve got new phones! And I’m here to teach you how to use them!
Most of the time, the response was, “I like the old phones. What was wrong with the old phones? I know how to use the old phones. I don’t like the new phones.”
I gave presentations to groups of 3 and groups of 20 and groups of 100 or more. And I became very comfortable with public speaking.
But that was 20 years ago, and now I’m back to square one again.
This past weekend, I was in North Carolina at the She Speaks conference to relearn how to move through that dark tunnel to square two.
This time around, I’ve got a different kind of good news.