On Saturday I was at the Southwest Missouri Autism Network meeting where I would be giving a presentation. However this wasn't a normal presentation as the majority of the people there had seen me before so the format would be different in that it would be a two hour Q&A session.
This was my 541st presentation and I haven't been nervous before a presentation in a very long time. Last October I had a couple presentations where the audience was over 1,000 but there were no nerves. Why? How can I, who is rather shy and quiet, speak to so much and have no issues and yet a room with about 30 people as was Saturday create issues?
For the vast majority of my presentations I have controlled the stage and with control comes safety. When I'm in front of 1,000 students speaking about my story I have control, I'm not sharing the stage, and I can control the tempo. On Saturday, however, there was a moderator and instead of being able to speak at my pace, and also not having my normal script to go by, caused the nerves to rise.
This isn't to say that the format was bad. The thing was that this was new. I've grown accustomed to my presentation and I do Q&A at the end of my presentations (normally) but this was Q&A without the presentation. Also, with a moderator I lost the metaphorical captaincy of the ship if the ship represents the presentation.
As the presentation was about to start I had a serious case of the yawns. This is my nervous reaction to something and I used to do it before presentations, but now it's usually just before media interviews, but last Saturday the yawns returned with a vengeance.
When it did begin I had a very hard time making any eye contact with the audience and my eyes were glued towards the direction of the moderator. I've trained myself to have my eyes scan the room while presenting but without the normal words and normal format I couldn't. For those that had seen me prior when I had the stage by myself I'm sure the difference was obvious. For myself, it was an odd sensation to have, in a way, mastered public speaking but I was back to feeling like a rookie.
While my outward appearance and demeanor may have been tense and perhaps a little bit on the forced side my words and speaking ability were not effected. The questions came, and some from the audience, and I tried to minimize my world by just focusing on the moderator as if I were having a one-on-one conversation.
Slowly I began to become comfortable with this new format and slowly my eyes ventured out towards the room in front of me. It was tough and throughout the entire session I never think my eyes made it to my extreme right to those on that side of the room, but I just couldn't get my eyes to go there. When I did look out in front of me instead of to the moderator it required an extreme amount of thought. Typically, now as it wasn't like this when I began, eye contact with the audience is not thought of, but in this environment it was. Also, I was at a fixed point which added to the change of it all. Fixed point? Yeah, instead of standing I was seated in a chair which I typically deflect eye contact with the audience by moving around a little which creates the illusion of eye contact but I'm so concentrated on my movements that I am not consciously aware of any eye contact.
Despite the anxiety I felt the time flew by and in the last half hour I was in my normal presentation groove and I lost track of all time. By the end I was enjoying this format for it's difference from the norm. Again, I spoke of the difficulties I had but it wasn't a bad thing or caused by any person but rather because it was change and it takes a while, sometimes a long while, to become acclimated to change. As with every new presentation I've done I've fretted about it beforehand and at first I've struggled to be comfortable but once again, by the end, it was good. I actually now hope for a presentation like this again soon because it got me off my script and many of the questions sparked new thoughts and new stories which I have never shared before.