One look at the words on the sign and my stomach flipped. My palms became damp, and my mouth went dry, which didn’t seem like a fair swap.
This was really happening. Up until now it had felt like a surreal dream.
‘Welcome to Deepings Literary Festival and to today’s special guest Barbara Copperthwaite’it read.
Months earlier, I’d agreed to give a talk at the festival after being approached by Linda Hill, who runs the fabulous Linda’s Book Bag. She wanted me to appear, alone, and speak for an hour – but that hour would include time for questions, she added. It was such an honour to be asked that I found myself temporarily forgetting that I’ve always avoided doing anything like that because of crippling nerves. Yes, I’ve done the occasional reading or sat behind a table covered in my books at an event, but never spoken. It’s strange, really, that I should have such nerves because I used to give occasional talks and presentations when I was a journalist. That was different, though. That was never about me; it was business. Somehow the thought of talking about myself was, frankly, terrifying; like I was laying myself bare to the audience, somehow.
Still, I’d got plenty of time to prepare. In other words, I pushed it to the back of my mind and tried not to think about it…
Eventually time rolled on, and there was only a fortnight left until the big event – which was going to be far bigger than I’d initially anticipated. The Deepings Literary Festival organisers had outdone themselves for this, only their second event. Big names included Cathy Bramley, Elly Griffiths, Sophie Hannah, Louise Jensen, and Darren O’Sullivan, to mention but a handful. When I saw the full list of speakers, I put my head in my hands, feeling totally outclassed by everyone.
There was no way I was pulling out and letting people down, though. So I listened to a couple of self-help audiobooks. Started using positive visualisation to imagine myself standing in front of the audience, feeling confident, speaking well, seeing people smiling in response to me. I also told myself that if I pretendedto be confident, I’d start to feelconfident – sometimes it really is as simple as that to trick our own brains.
Of course, I also practised, practised, practised my speech. My poor partner, Paul, must have heard it at least twenty times. Twice a day, every day, I drilled it. It wasn’t about learning it off by heart – I knew I wouldn’t manage that, and didn’t want to put extra pressure on myself to even attempt it. It was about becoming comfortable with speaking the words aloud.
It made room for another fear, though: no one was going to turn up. There would only be me, my mum, Paul, and Linda in the audience.
That‘s beyond my control,I decided.
The self-help audiobooks were making a difference, it seemed.
The night before, I felt fine about everything, actually. I’d prepared as much as I could, and I even slept the night before, which was very unexpected!
Then I saw that sign welcoming everyone, and naming me, and suddenly reality hit.
At least the hall was full when I walk in. What a relief! Until I realised they’d all been there for Cathy Bramley’s brilliant appearance…and were leaving now. All too soon the hall started to look rather deserted!
Act confident, you’ll feel confident, I repeated. It didn’t stop my heart from fluttering, or the tunnel vision I seemed to have developed where I could only see the staging area where I’d be talking. More people wandered in. Then more. And more. People had come to see me! Hurray! Heck, what if they left disappointed in what they’d seen?
But I kept fighting the urge to slink out of the room, and instead put my shoulders back, stood tall, tried to smile even though I was worried my lips would stick to my teeth…
Minutes before it was time to begin, Linda told me I’d be using a microphone. I’d never used one before. Another first!
It was time. As Linda introduced me, I looked around the room at the expectant audience. They all looked so interested and friendly.
Just like I’d imagined so many times.
There were even a couple of familiar faces smiling at me: authors Eva Jordan and Rachel Sargeant, and book blogger supreme, Anne, of Being Anne. This was even better than my visualisations!
First, I gave a reading from The Darkest Lies which I think helped both the audience and me warm up a little, then… Well, then the talk proper began. I’ll admit it’s a bit of a blur looking back on it now, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. There were lots of questions asked at the end, too – and even a queue of people afterwards who wanted me to sign their books.
That was a week ago today, and I’m still buzzing from facing my fear. I feel so empowered by the experience, and can’t thank the organisers and audience enough for being so kind, supportive, warm and welcoming.