What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

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

Get the book!

Did you know? This resource is also available as a print book called “Simply Blunderful: A cancer survivor’s illustrated guide to flaming tennis balls, camping catastrophes and the many obstacles life throws our way.” Click here to learn more and order your copy.

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

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

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience