Nature programs us to be scared of things like sudden movements, the stink of rotting matter, and brightly striped buzzing creatures. Fear is the emotion best equipped to keep humans alive, so it’s a real sign of the times that so many people are scared of public speaking.
I just watched ‘Stammer School’ on 4OD where a bunch of poor unfortunates facing a lifetime struggling to speak, work bloody hard trying to. I dare say it’s enough to make anyone with a fear of public speaking a little ashamed of themselves. I’ll bet most stammerers would give their eye teeth to ‘stand up and say a few words’ without being burdened by their cruel disability.
I’ve seen a few people struggle in front of an audience – a cousin’s best man comes to mind, who gave, I am confident to assert, the shortest and worst wedding speech ever – but you can sympathise with the pressure that comes from being ‘in the moment’ and expected to perform.
By contrast, it’s very hard to sympathise with someone who is phobic about writing, and for whom the sight of a blank Word document (with cursor flashing mockingly at them) is enough to make them reconsider their choice of trouser colour. That’s because of the single biggest advantage of the written word over the spoken, and one made even more assured since the comparatively recent introduction of word processing software; the delete key.
Writing isn’t a live sport; you don’t have to start at the start and do each piece in turn.
Imagine writing is like modelling with clay; first of all you need a lot of clay, right? To accumulate your lump, embark on a process of unloading every little thought (even if it’s only tenuously related to what you’re writing about) onto the page. A lot of these will be entirely unconnected little lumps – don’t worry; keep going.
Pretty soon you’ve overcome this fear of not having anything on the page. Now there is a lot of seemingly useless crap on the page instead, but that’s OK because you’ve got the delete key to cut, scoop and smooth most of it away.
Some of the individual lumps will each look like something; a good ending perhaps, or an example, a metaphor, or passage of meaty technical bumf. Work them over and over to shape them into short, sharp pieces. It’s all disjointed but they’ll all come together in the end.
Now you’ve got some parts you like the look of, you need to put them in order and fashion the linkages and segueways that make them flow. In no time at all you’ve got a finished piece of writing in front of you – which you now need to delete the hell out of…
It is quite liberating to smash the hell out of your own work, but like a baker’s dough it genuinely will benefit from a good thrashing. “Cut like a scalpel until it is lean, taut and compelling,” is what my old boss used to tell me. You will be merciless and, in so doing, you will see whole parts that you really liked creating being consigned forever to Microsoft’s extremely short-term memory.
Having employed this approach for many difficult writing tasks in the past – and in training countless junior colleagues down the years – I’ve become used to witnessing a phenomenon I call ‘the deep breath’. This is the very start of the writing process (initial clay lump accumulation stage!) where the first few sentences start forming on the page. You can tell a ‘deep breath’ from a mile off. People accidentally leave it in at the very start of their writing instead of deleting it along with everything else that’s obsolete. (Check out my recent Ode to Aldi post and you can see I’ve made the mistake there.)
Watching those stammerers learn to overcome their challenges, you can see each one consciously remember to take a big deep breath (part of the costal breathing technique) before each word. The coaches – all former stammerers – never seem to need to; instead they’ve become experienced enough to do it subconsciously, and the result is speech much like anyone else’s. It’s so similar to writing; the deep breath you seem to want is the deep breath you don’t end up needing. It’s a comfort blanket you don’t need.
If you’re lacking in writing confidence then learn to love the delete key and it will pay you back a million fold.