Talking is scary.
If you get called on in class out of the blue, there is no time for the gray fog in your brain to clear. There is no time to piece together an intellectual answer that accurately reflects what you actually think about the topic. Instead, you blurt out some half-concocted answer to try and pass yourself off as engaged student who is able to quickly formulate and articulate ideas.
In Advanced Placement English Literature class during my senior year of high school, we were in the middle of discussing “Beowulf” when my teacher decided to have everyone go around and say their greatest fear. As he started in the opposite corner of the room, my mind started racing. What’s my biggest fear? Spiders? That’s too basic. Abandonment? That’s too deep. Yet, even though my mind was racing, it was simultaneously blank.
Finally, it was my turn — the last person to reveal their biggest fear. I opened my mouth. And nothing came out.
One of my classmates joked, “Her biggest fear is public speaking, obviously.” And then we just moved on. I never answered my biggest fear. But my classmate was probably not too far off from the truth.
If my teacher had assigned that prompt as a writing assignment, I could’ve written a brilliantly-worded paper using metaphors, imagery and symbols. Instead, he sprung it on us in class as a casual conversation topic and my mind froze.
Talking is scary. No amount of preparation can appease that.
No matter how many times you practice a speech, it only takes one misbreath or misplaced swallow for you to start tripping over your tongue and random sounds to start tumbling out of your mouth that you think are words but are actually nonsensical gibberish which makes you wish you never started talking in the first place and you have to just remind yourself to breathe.
In U.S. History class during my sophomore year, our very first group presentation was about the American colonies. I was assigned Plymouth colony. My two groupmates and I stood at the front of the room, with over 40 eyes on us.
“The Mayflower Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts,” I started. “They befriended the American Indians in the area and were able to get food thanks to their native allies, Samoset and Sasquatch.”
I froze. I replayed what I just said in my head.
“Wait,” I said. “That’s not right…”
People were chuckling, my teacher included. “Did you say Sasquatch?”
“Um … uhh … SQUANTO! I meant Squanto.”
But by then, the damage was done. Four years later, and I can still hear myself claiming Bigfoot helped the Pilgrims survive.
Fast forward a year: junior year, A.P. U.S. History. Another presentation — this time about Claudette Colvin.
“Everyone remembers Rosa Parks, but there was a girl before her named Claudette Colvin who refused to give up her seat on the bus nine months before Rosa Parks,” I rambled. “But the reason everyone knows Rosa Parks and nobody knows Claudette Colvin is because the NCAA thought Rosa Parks would make a better icon.”
During this presentation, I didn’t even catch my verbal blunder the first time around. I kept going, even though my mind was trying to stomp on the mental breaks because it could sense something wasn’t right.
“So the historical narrative favors Rosa Parks because the NCAA…”
Finally my brain processed what I said. But the letters were still scrambled in my head.
“Um … wait … N … double A C P,” the letters slowly fell out of my mouth in the right order.
“Yeah … ” my U.S. history teacher said. “I don’t think the professional basketball association endorsed Rosa Parks.”
Though he didn’t say it, I knew he was just thinking, “So silly.”
Talking is scary. Those speech gaffes happen instantly. It doesn’t matter if you’re asked a question and caught off-guard or if you’ve practiced the words for months. Your mouth slips up, and it’s a moment frozen in time that you cannot go back to edit or erase.
That is why fact-checking and copyediting matters.
You can refine and revise on paper until you get it right. Live speaking is a one-shot deal. Writing gives you the time to think before you share your thoughts. It also allows for the ability to go back and make sure you’re saying what you want to say. Being a copy editor means I can find those mistakes and ensure the author’s message is accurately and adequately expressed.
That’s not to say writing is an infallible method of communication. It’s easy to type “our” instead of “out” or use the wrong there, their or they’re or confuse your acronyms of similar letters and type “NCAA” instead of “NAACP,” especially if you’re a basketball fan or a passionate activist and the muscle memory of your fingers kicks in.
However, just as speaking is dreadfully instantaneous and fleeting, writing is hauntingly permanent. One typo can go down in history. For example, the infamous covfefe becomes an embodiment of our nation’s leader. But with typing competency, sharp eyes and the will to proofread, errors are avoidable if one puts in the time and thought.
So whether it is impromptu speaking or a prepared speech, talking is scary. I guess that’s why I’ll stick to being a newspaper copy editor and not a TV reporter.