Image for The Knot in my Stomach

Don Knowler ... and friends ...

The tiger snake gave me an unsympathetic stare. Forget ophidiophobia – the fear of snakes – I was afflicted by something far more frightening. Feelings of panic, a knot in the stomach, a rising nausea …. I had glossophobia, the fear of public speaking and the tiger snake, rising to near its full one and a half metres in length to view me through the glass of its pen, didn’t seem to care.

My encounter with the snake and a near 300-strong audience came during an Australian Wildlife Rehabilitation Conference at the Grand Chancellor Hotel in Hobart and about an hour before a speech I was scheduled to make, I was thinking I had made a mistake in being persuaded to put my name down as a speaker.

Fear of pubic speaking is after all in the Top 10 of phobias, if not at the top.

Worse. I was in a predicament that came from another symptom of phobia: the primitive fight-or-flee choice when confronted by fear and anguish.

The “flee” option seemed a good idea for a fleeting moment before rational thought took hold.

To begin at the beginning, two years before falling under the gaze of both a tiger and a copperhead snake a wildlife carer friend had mentioned that the biennial rehabilitation conference was coming to Hobart for the first time in its 12-year history. At the time, I said I would try to get it some publicity in the Mercury nearer the date.

Just before Christmas last year I was contacted by my friend to ask if I had anything interesting to say in a paper. My only contact with the wildlife carer movement I had come by way of a book I was researching on roadkill but I had knowledge of the media and thought it would be a good idea to set out some rules that would make contact with newspapers, television, radio and social media easier for carer groups looking for publicity.

My speech was duly written, sent off and accepted for the conference, and I didn’t give it further thought until about a month before the conference when the program for the proceedings arrived, with the time and date for me to speak.

Taking a bus to the reception at Government House on the eve of the conference, it suddenly dawned on me what I had let myself in for. Here was a crew – I sat next to a retired vet from Western Australia who specialised in rehabilitating birds – the members of which were clearly experts in their respective fields.  I felt like a fish out of water, a bird out of the nest.

I looked again at the program: Mange management in wombats; Pasture management for growing kangaroos; Reptiles and euthanasia; Filling in the cracks, turtle shell repair. What would the delegates from all over Australia, and Britain and the United States, to say nothing about one from Pakistan, make of my contribution: Stop the presses! I want to get on?

Next day I attended the opening by the Governor, the late Peter Underwood. And there was the full realisation of what lie ahead.

This was not one of my casual talks about birds, before about 30 participants at the Waterworks Reserve, who read my On the Wing column in the Mercury. I had found addressing bigger audiences in the past too daunting, and always declined invitations, and now I was about to take centre stage at a national conference, in a conference hall, with a podium looking out over a sea of tables with jugs of water on them and pads and specially issued red ballpoint pens. 

People with an aversion to public speaking experience a range of emotions related to self-doubt: they fear they will sound boring or even dumb. In my case, it’s the fear of freezing, of losing my place, of literally being lost for words. And ultimately, making a fool of myself in public.
I was due to speak the next afternoon, and hurriedly drove home to have another look at my speech, fine-tuning it, excising what I considered the silly bits and reading it, time and again.

I arrived early the next afternoon and found a seat hard to find. I was forced to take one at the end of a row, near the two tanks holding the snakes, spillovers from an exhibition of art and animals and the paraphernalia of the carer business, like specially-designed blankets for joeys.

As the first speaker of the afternoon session came to the dais I was in panic. Eric Woehler of Birds Tasmania gave a polished account of the Status and trends of shorebirds in Tasmania. How could I match that?

As the speeches went on, I read the opening lines of my contribution to myself. I couldn’t concentrate, my mouth was dry. I was overwhelmed by nerves.

To my horror, the cockney accent I lost in my youth seemed to return. Instead of reading “with” I said “wiv” and “whether” came out “wevver” . I wouldn’t even attempt the “anthropomorphism” in my script. Would anyone understand me?

I looked about me to see if anyone was looking, but thankfully the audience was looking towards the next speaker, Meg Good of the Barristers’ Animal Welfare Panel. The only eyes on me where those of the tiger and copperhead snakes just a few metres away, perhaps attracted to my nervous fidgeting.

At that point I seriously considered making a dash for it, going to the organiser of the conference in the break before I was due to speak and saying I was feeling unwell, and didn’t think I could go on.

In truth I was feeling unwell, but what the hell. I had come this far and I decided that there was absolutely no return. I had to go on and if I forgot my lines, was sick on the rostrum or worse that would be too bad. I owed it to all those present.

During a short break before I was due to speak. I took a stroll. Getting myself a drink of water,  I bumped into the animal carer who initially suggested I should make a contribution – he was acting as a marshal in bright orange tunic – and he asked if I was okay.

“No,” I said, “I’m feeling terribly nervous.”

“Well you just follow me,” he replied, “I got someone, an expert on this, you have to talk to.”

At the information desk was a former nurse with training and experience in stress management and meditation. With just 10 minutes to go, she took me into a room to calm me down.

“Now where are you from originally?” she asked.

“London,” I replied.

“No I mean what part of London?” She had clearly heard my accent.

“Sowth Lundun,” I said, a strong accent emerging as it always does when I get stressed, or drunk.

“Well I’m from the Eeest,” she said, “Eeest Lundun, but a long time ago.”

“I didn’t hear a Lundun accen’ at first,” I said.

“Na,” she replied. “It’s tawking to you that did it.”

The former nurse gave me tips on breathing, telling me to pause between each paragraph, compose myself before I went on.

“They ain’t going to notice,” she reassured me.

Within minutes it was time to be off.  In my eagerness to confront my demons, I missed the entrance to the ballroom and walked into the kitchens, before realising my mistake.

As I finally entered the hall, I was being introduced. I mounted the podium and was straight into my speech. I didn’t miss a beat, and even found time to pause to not only take a breath, but to pour myself a glass of water. I built in confidence and mental strength. All of a sudden what I was trying to say made sense, and I suddenly felt I was making a worthy contribution. I had been told not to look at the audience, but I could now see people nodding in agreement when I made a point.

And that knot in the stomach had vanished, I didn’t feel sick anymore and my mouth did not feel it was as dry as a kangaroo’s pouch.

Before I knew it, my speech was over, and there was applause.

And during the following question and answer session, I felt confident and at ease enough to crack a joke.

“In my nervousness I walked into the kitchens,” I told the audience. “Instead of making a speech, I nearly did the dishes.”

• Chris Harries in Comments: Don, this is so funny. Reminds me of the time long ago when I was a young environmentalist a teacher friend asked me to come and talk about whales. Though a shy young bloke (I had trouble talking to more than three people at once) I said yes, that would be ok. I didn’t know much about whales but could wing it. Alas, I’d been expecting a low key classroom conversation, but when I got to the school I was immediately led into a huge assembly of 400 high school students, and without a speech, and nowhere to escape. Would have much preferred to confront a tiger snake in my tent.