We Are Always On Stage
When I ask my students to do presentations in front of the classroom, their first question is inevitably “How long does it have to be?” Being a quality-over-quantity kind of guy, my answer is always: “You’ll get as much time as you need.” But what most students learn when they’re finally speaking in front of the class is that they don’t know how to stop. Some even realize they’re enjoying themselves.
People say they’re afraid of audiences, but what they mean is they’re afraid of failing in front of an audience. When we do something cool, we invariably look around to see if anyone noticed; just as when we trip and fall, we pray there were no witnesses (and then pray harder it doesn’t end up on Youtube).
The stages I use most regularly when I’m doing stand-up are usually not even a foot above the ground. You take one very small step up and suddenly you’ve entered a completely different world, even though you’re still in the same room you were a second ago. But still, that step up comes with a bag of expectations. It’s about you, it’s not about you. Think of yourself, think of your audience. When it comes to stand-up, there has to be laughter, but you need the silence to get there. Most people are afraid of silence, which is why those dreaded interjections like umm and uhh start filling in the cracks between words.
Personally, I like silence. I was born hearing impaired, so the world was always something that was very far away from me. When your default aural setting is the equivalent of being submerged underwater, the rest of your senses eventually follow. Because of this, I have spent most of my life living inside my head. I’ve done this for such a long time, that even at this moment I need to remind myself that the world is not over there and that I am over here.
This is probably why I’ve always gravitated to writing because, in its own weird way, it brings the world to me in a way that I can understand it. Many people might see this as a form of isolation, but to me, it’s the opposite in every way. And I’ve learned in the last couple of years that being on stage allows me to be a part of the world too. Where most people equate public speaking as a form of death, it is life for me.
One of the things I picked up on when I started doing public speaking and stand-up more regularly was that when I was on stage I felt alive and unafraid, but the moment I walked off, I immediately developed a fear that people would want to approach and talk to me. I could handle an audience, but one-on-one interaction bothered me.
I read an article on introverts early last year and there was a quote that made my heart jump from recognition. And from there I kept reading other articles, and then I read a book on the subject, and everything I read connected another piece to a puzzle that had been sitting in front of me all of my life: I’m an introvert. This explained a lot of the choices I’ve made in my life. From small things like hating when my phone rings to bigger things like why I spent nearly a decade of my life drunk.
It also explained the internal monologue running through my head all my life, like there’s always a television on in the background. I learned a trick back when I had work that required me to live in hotels up and down the east coast for a year. All the downtime in the hotel rooms allowed me to focus on myself. And one of the things I did was push the variety of voices into two specific people. The loud one is the contrarian, the one who prefers not to, and he is personified accordingly as Bartleby the scrivener. And the quiet one, the one who pushes me along, is personified as Emily Dickinson. I was reading a book of her letters one night, and she wrote, “You ask my companions, Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself that my father bought me. They are better than beings because they know but do not tell…” and I knew I had found a friend.
The internal dialogue works like this:
You can’t hear a thing.
You hear enough.
You look awful.
You look fine.
No one understands you.
No one is truly understood.
You’re not good enough.
Just do your best.
This writing is terrible.
This is my version of the devil and angel on my shoulders. These are fears, my ghosts, my shadows.
I recently listened to a conversation with the therapist Phil Stutz, who talks about how we all have a shadow that represents the things about ourselves that we don’t like or that we’re ashamed of — essentially our insecurities. And that we find ourselves negotiating with this shadow when we’re about to do something we feel to be important. For instance, you are about to do public speaking and your shadow represents your fear of being on stage and your lack of confidence, so you tell your shadow to stay away, at least for the next hour. But your shadow resents being pushed away, so it decides to show up in the middle of your speech just to spite you. Stutz’s approach to this is to simply invite your shadow along, because, and I’m paraphrasing here, despite what we believe, our fears shrink the closer we approach them. So when you invite the shadow to come with you, you rob it of its power.
The most rewarding moments of doing stand-up in the last year have been when I’ve invited Bartleby to come up with me, and then I’ve joked about the things that keep me awake at night. But I’d like to work on bringing him with me when I’m off stage, because then maybe he’ll become the quiet one instead. You might be safe in your home, but the only way to rid the vampire outside once and for all is to finally invite it in. So, please, come on in, by all means. Would you like a piece of pie?
Here’s a secret: the world is not over there. You are already in it. You don’t need to take that step up to be on the stage. You are always on stage, whether you like it or not. Though you are not standing in front of an audience right now, an audience is always waiting on you.
And here’s the really big secret: the audience doesn’t want you to fail. The only one who wants you to fail is yourself so you’ll have an excuse not to try the next thing.
The audience is honestly waiting to applaud you.
So get up there, bring your shadow with you, and tell your story.
You’ll get as much time as you need.