Comedy and fear

By | 02/12/2019

Wales: Lots more than rain

Two posts ago I wrote about a Personal Development week I went on with a group of colleagues from GEC, the location being a small Welsh village.

The head of training came into the classroom where we were studying a computer language called Pascal to see how we were getting on. He asked if there were any grey areas about anything. I was keen to know when the week in Wales was going to be, as I had commitments.

Me, “To me there’s one huge grey area.”

Him, “What’s that?”

Me, “Wales.”

At that point everyone fell about as if I’d said something funny. It took me a while to realise why they’d laughed: I’d accidentally implied that Wales itself was a huge grey area.

When you’ve been there a few times, you do find that it’s often grey and raining as you pass the ‘Welcome to Wales’ sign. Despite that it’s a beautiful place and I’ll carry on visiting again and again.

Accidental comedy

Looking back, I realised that accidentally creating comedy was something of a habit of mine. But I wanted to learn to do it deliberately. I’d always had a strong desire to make people laugh, which was successful around the family dinner table, but was less known elsewhere.

Apart from generating laughter, I felt I had important things to say, although at that time I didn’t know what they were. What I definitely did know was that I couldn’t stand up and say them, due to a pathological fear of public performance.

What scares you most? Me – Audiences

Four years of making myself talk to anybody and everybody at university had banished my fear of speaking to individuals forever… but a terror of standing in front of an audience remained. Even making a witty remark to a few friends in a pub was a challenge.

If you were to conduct a survey, I think you’d find that public speaking is the most terrifying ordeal people envisage. It’s well ahead of death, apart maybe from people who know they’re about to meet their maker.

Early warning

Well, I was seriously stunned when my brother Noel gave me six months’ notice that he wanted me to be his best man. Until then, I’d do anything I could to avoid speaking publicly. Now I had a specific need, alongside a new desire to learn. I was thankful to Noel for the advance warning. Six months seemed a good time frame for me to settle my fears.

Public speaking – learning the ropes

One of those coincidences that occurs from time to time then occurred. The redoubtable Joan Flynn had chosen exactly that moment in history to set up a public speaking club, ITC, in Coventry. (NB: ITC = International Training in Communication).

Knowing full well that I was embarking on something terrifying, I joined up.

At the first meeting, I was given the opportunity of speaking impromptu for two minutes about pets. I knew I didn’t have to do it… I could’ve just turned and walked out, or just remained in my seat.

But it was now or never.

Public speaking – On the ropes

My ventricles and atria hammering like a clattering, clanking, near-self-destructing demon-possessed vintage steam engine, I walked to the lectern. It was like a walk of 500 miles, as The Proclaimers might say. Every sweat-gland I owned sweated. I trembled, bumbled, fumbled, stumbled and gibbered like a colony of monkeys but managed to keep going until a red light indicated I could stop.

Spent and frazzled

I retired to my seat emotionally spent and mentally frazzled… but, once I’d recovered I was elated. I’d done it! I’d broken my duck! I couldn’t help feeling that my trajectory was onwards and upwards – particularly as there was no sign of my illness recurring.

Komedy Skool for Adults

Over the next few weeks amazing changes occurred within me: I started to enjoy being at the front. I found myself able to get an audience to laugh, and I embarked on an epic voyage into the dark art of joke-making, analysing different joke formats, comedians and sit-coms and generally deconstructing comedy and laying down guidance on how to ‘do’ it.

If you’re interested, the results are taking shape on my sister blog at:

Six months later

At Noel and Katya’s wedding I couldn’t have been more prepared, although I was a bit nervous. I wasn’t troubled by this because by then I knew that a modest amount of nerves is required. It increases your adrenaline levels, your enthusiasm, the power of your delivery and your overall effectiveness.

You could say – in fact I’m going to – that I sailed through the speech like a flatulent windsurfer propelled by wind and wave towards a beach party. The audience were with me from my first joke to my last punchline.

Six months of persistence, effort and fun had paid off.

Getting into public speaking

Folks, I can say that public speaking is one of the most life-enhancing skills I’ve ever learnt.

If you want to get on, seeking a local speakers club (ITC, Toastmasters etc) might be a good thing to do. You might find new confidence or even a new career. Both these things happened to me.

It’s quite likely you’ll find the process as scary as I did, but you can only gain from it. It’s interesting to note that people who don’t feel fear when they start don’t seem to improve much. The fear barrels you forwards. It might even be that it’s there because you want to do the task well. When you find you can actually do it, you may well go off like a rocket like I did.

Armed with growing self -belief you’ll be more confident, more able to hold the attention of an audience and much more impressive at interviews.

Speaking and writing

I spent eight years at Coventry ITC, generally meeting every fortnight. There was never a dull moment. But it wasn’t just about speaking. Someone had to write every speech I made – and the only available writer was me. This was fantastic experience in researching and writing for performance: drama, biography, history, tragedy, motivational and comic.

These two skills, as well as my discoveries about comedy, led to a fulfilling career as a speechwriter, entertainer, storyteller and professional speaker. The latter half of this blog will cover the events which occurred once my mental ill-health was resolved.

Chaos and mayhem

But first we have to deal with the ongoing mayhem of another five years of oscillating mental health. I’m afraid it’s going to be a sort of Heronymous Bosch-inspired topsy-turvy fairground ride.

Probably best to fasten your seatbelts.