My spectacularly underwhelming poetry recital wasn’t the only time I’ve appeared on stage. In fact, my theatrical CV stretches all the way back to my breakout performance as Ant #2 in our kindergarten concert, “The Ants Go Marching In.” A meaty role to be sure: my character’s arc involved stopping to tie my shoe as I sang and strode across the stage. Not to sound immodest, but I was amazing.

Fast-forward to grade 8, and things were different. Thanks to puberty, I had transformed into an oily, gangly, squeaky-voiced adolescent. Suddenly, girls, acting cool and knowing all the words to Ace of Base’s “The Sign” had become very important.

The Age of Self-Consciousness had begun.

So when it came time for the school’s annual Christmas concert, the thought of getting on stage and performing in front of a sold-out gymnasium was terrifying.

Thankfully, Ms. Van Aiken found the perfect role for me. I was to play a tree. Well, not exactly a tree. My job was to hold a cardboard cut-out of a tree in front of me. For all intents and purposes, I was a glorified broom handle. 

They say in theatre that there are no small parts. I respectfully disagree. But since I got to hide from view behind the seven-foot prop, I wasn’t complaining.

My cousin Jonathan was also cast as a tree holder. But on the night of the concert, we got word that he was too sick to perform. Panicked murmurs filled the backstage as Ms. Van Aiken scrambled to find a suitable last-minute replacement. After all, the show must go on.

A few minutes later, I took a deep breath as the curtains opened, holding my tree in front of me like a seasoned pro. I glanced to my left to where Jonathan would have been holding his and hoped his substitute was up to the task. His stand-in? A friggin’ chair. I started to question how essential I really was to the production.

Much to my dismay, high school forced me out from behind cardboard shrubbery. For example, during grade 10 English class, Mr. Roth wanted us to read Shakespeare aloud and randomly assigned roles to his students. The part I was given had only one line in the scene. And that line consisted of only one word.

One word. That’s all I had to say. 

But judging by the sheer panic that gripped me, you’d have thought he tasked me to defuse a nuclear bomb. I rehearsed the line over and over in my head while my classmates recited theirs. As my moment of dialogue drew closer, I felt like I was hyperventilating. My pulse was racing. My chest felt tight. Fresh sweat stained my T-shirt.

And when it came time for me to deliver my one-word line, my throat closed up and no sound came out. I tried again, my mouth gaping. Nada. Mr. Roth looked up from his copy of the play. I tried again and managed a feeble croak. 

“Whose turn is it?” he asked. All eyes were on what I can only assume was my extremely scarlet face. I finally managed to squeak out another strangled delivery, this time loud enough to hear. The scene continued and my breathing slowly returned to normal.

But in time, things did get better. In grade 11, I took a giant leap forward and successfully auditioned for the annual school play. Sure, it was a small role, but I’m confident they’d have had a hard time replacing me with a chair. I snagged an even bigger role the following season. Not bad considering my humble beginnings hiding behind set dressing.

Bit by bit, I overcame my shyness, which allowed me to reclaim some of the kindergarten confidence I had as Ant #2. But it had spillover effects offstage as well. Eventually I was speaking up in class, raising my hand instead of doing everything I could to avoid eye contact with the teacher.

And years later, having a voice became more crucial than ever. As a patient at Princess Margaret Hospital, I learned how important it was to be my own advocate. It meant asking lots of questions, even the ones that might sound ridiculous. It meant not being afraid to use my call bell when my anti-nausea meds started to wear off. And it meant speaking up when Food Services sent me vanilla pudding instead of chocolate.

Basically, it meant coming out from behind the cardboard tree so I could play a bigger role in my story. 

Dealing with public speaking fears

Scared of public speaking? You’re not alone. Time and again, it tops people’s lists of fears. More than heights. More than spiders. Even more than death itself. Yup, for many people, dying is a less frightening prospect than standing up and giving a presentation.

I can relate. I’ve come a long way since my days as a tree, but I continue to get nervous before giving a talk. Every speaking gig I attend still comes with churning bowels and a pre-show trip to the toilet. But the more I do it, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes. Here are a few tips on dealing with those butterflies:

Be real — Don’t try to be something you’re not. If humour isn’t your strong suit, steer clear of the corny jokes. If you stumble on your words, acknowledge it and carry on. If you don’t know the answer to something, say so. Audiences appreciate authenticity.

Be prepared — I’m most comfortable at speaking engagements when I’m well prepared. Doing the legwork ahead of time makes a big difference. That includes doing your research, polishing your presentation, rehearsing what you want to say and preparing yourself for questions you might get.

Do it with a friend — Is there an opportunity to tag-team your presentation? Having someone else present with you relieves a lot of the pressure and is a great way to diffuse public speaking anxiety. 

Start small — Find little ways to boost your comfort level. That may mean raising your hand in class more frequently or making more of an effort to offer your two cents during work meetings. 

Get help — Toastmasters is a great organization that’s been helping people overcome their fear of public speaking since the 1920s. With clubs all over the place, odds are there’s one near you.

Try deep breathing — Before your speech, help calm your nerves by taking a few deep, slow breaths. 

Use the butterflies — Resist the urge to supress or ignore the butterflies in your stomach. They’re perfectly normal and are a good sign you care about what you’re doing. Instead, acknowledge their presence with a silent hello and then channel that energy into your presentation. 

Next: Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability