How I Learned to Stay Confident After I Put the Vodka Down

Keeping your confidence while public speaking without resorting to the crutch of alcohol.

I smiled confidently as I took the microphone to deliver the best man speech at my brother’s wedding. I learned later that my aunt had turned to my cousin and said, “This is gonna be good, boy.”

I looked out over the crowd and thought:

Crap, I am hammered.

I had spent six months leading up to that moment writing and rewriting lines and Googling: How the hell do you give a good best man speech? And by the time the wedding rolled around, I only had a vague outline of what I might say. And, on that day, I don’t remember what I said, or how I stayed standing, or why everyone was laughing, but in the end, my aunt turned to my cousin and said, “See, told you so.”

As a kid, I thought confidence was something that came with age. I wasn’t old enough to see the signs of nervousness; stiff limbs, stumbling over words, shaking. I just saw adults in front of a boat-load of people and they were saying words without crapping themselves! But then I grew up and found that I did, somehow, grow into a confident person, by which I mean I grew into a bit of a drunk.

After my first book was published I was told I had to do public readings. The first one was at a library. Walking there in the dead of winter with the artist I worked with, we passed a flask of vodka back and forth, periodically looking at each other and saying simply, “fuuuuck.”

There were over fifty people at that first reading and all of them were looking at me with the assumption that I had something to say — my logic being ignored that:

I wrote a book specifically to say something without having to interact with people.

The reason I don’t remember my brother’s best man speech is that six minutes prior I stood at the bar and said, “pour another, and another — that one, too. You’ve got bourbon? Sure, fuck it — let’s get this over with.”

And the same goes for the reading where I was more vodka than man and I somehow managed to read the text before the world went all wonky.

And then I stopped drinking, but the expectations didn’t go away, and my hands shook, and loony toons characters chased each other around my stomach. But I still manage it, somehow. Though now, and especially in the early days of my sobriety, I screwed up a lot. But it has gotten less and less. It feels as though I’ve taught my mouth to do tricks on command while my brain ran around my stomach trying to gather it’s shit and get out the door.

I’d like to say, “THE TRICK IS…” but there is no trick. Still, when I see a politician, movie star, “thought leader” or some other such Joe-Shmo get up and speak in front of people, I think to myself, “They must know some secret I don’t.” But I know this isn’t true because I’ve done it, yes drunk, but now often sober — I’ve taught classes, presented to crowds, conducted hundreds of on-camera interviews, and the whole time I’ve watched it from outside of myself, stunned that my lips and body were doing these things I didn’t recognize, swaggering when it wanted to fall, smiling when it wanted to hide, talking when it’s tongue had gotten so fat and swollen and scared.

So, how did I maintain confidence going from drunk to sober?

“The more you do, the better you get at it” — yes, but easier? Nope.

The truth is quite simple: I put my faith in people. I am incredibly nervous, and I shake and don’t know what to say, and I have that hot painful knot in my stomach that I know I’m just about to choke on like everyone else. I also know that everyone has this — everyone knows this feeling and when we mess up, we think “Oh, no I am being judged!” when in actuality, most people are just impressed you’re up there. One mistake can send your brain down a rabbit hole if you think you’re being judged, leading to more and more mistakes. But 99/100 people have empathy and will forget all about it.

Watch closely the next time you see a confident person give a speech; you’ll notice slips, missteps, a few choking moments, but they are so fast and the person lets them go so quickly that no one notices or cares.

The key being: if you want to become better and more confident with speaking in public, learn to fuck-up and move on, over and over until the fuck-ups are less and the moving on is seamless.

I’ve never bought into the mantra, “The more you do it, the easier it gets.” It isn’t true, not for me. “The more you do, the better you get at it” — yes, but easier? Nope. But I do it anyway because backing down is somehow much worse. And for that 1% who judges your missteps, take solace that they are not someone you’d likely want to share your time with anyways.

Columnist and author. My writing is like a bunch of people at a party trying to tell different jokes at the same time.

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