I’ll never forget the first time I appeared on national radio. It was 2013, during my first job in political journalism, and I had been asked by BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss the atmosphere at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, which I’d been reporting on that day.
It was a late evening slot, and I spent the entire afternoon in utter terror. Sweaty palms, a dry throat, shakes, heart racing. When it finally reached the dreaded time, I wasn’t even required in the studio – the BBC team hustled me into a little soundproof booth with just a mic and clock for company, and I spoke for all of 30 seconds.
I can’t remember how it went. My one memory is of the presenter mispronouncing my surname “Shake-a-Lion”, which family and friends – loyally listening in – still use (and which I think could make for a good coat of arms some day).
I do remember thinking the nerves were an odd sensation – so familiar as a child during school plays or before exams but something I’d not felt as intensely since. Of course, nerves are always there throughout our lives – in job interviews, first dates, driving tests, wedding speeches, eulogies, hospital visits, tense conversations and confrontations with loved ones – but they are rarely discussed in adulthood.
That’s why I felt such a surge of gratitude when I saw the broadcaster Amol Rajan tweet yesterday about his hellish night before his first show as a new presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. In a series of tweets, he revealed how he had suffered a “full-on panic attack” at 10pm the night before, working himself up “into a frenzy” and “catastrophising” about his first shift.
Frantically downloading sleep apps in “the depths of my self-inflicted horror”, he only managed an hour’s sleep. The act of downloading the apps “intensified the doom spilling through my head”.
This sounds like an anxiety spiral rather than the bout of nerves I described, but it did strike me as refreshing to hear such an experienced journalist give a glimpse of what goes on beneath his assured, calm exterior – particularly in an industry where everyone seems so intimidatingly confident.
Andrew Marr, a veteran BBC broadcaster, wrote something similar recently – revealing in a recent diary piece for the New Statesman that “I never sleep well before a big programme” and describing how he was awake as early as 4.30am before his 9am Sunday morning show following the local election results.
While actors and musicians more commonly open up about stage fright, and sports stars are asked about the pressure of a crowd, it still feels rare for people to discuss nerves publicly. I wish I knew more about how surgeons keep steady hands, or world leaders deliver impromptu speeches when crisis strikes.
This is a notable gap in public conversation, considering the uncontrollable physical symptoms of nerves. A 2016 Sussex University study showed how part of the brain became deactivated when participants felt they were being observed while performing a task. From penalty kicks to driving tests, it’s this phenomenon that leads to people faltering when they’re feeling nervous.
Although I’m less petrified of media punditry these days, I still feel the familiar jangles long before any radio or TV appearance. It’s a relief to know my palms aren’t the only sweaty ones.