Standing-up to Fear: David Nihill at TEDxManchester (Transcript)

David Nihill at TEDxManchester

Following is the full text of David Nihill’s talk titled “Standing-up to Fear” at TEDxManchester conference. David is the Founder of FunnyBizz Conference, bestselling author of ‘Do You Talk Funny?’

David Nihill – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

Growing up as a kid in Ireland, we had pretty much zero percent immigration.

I was the brownest person for miles. Just a hint of a tan. They were like: “Look at him … suspicious.”

And now, we have 17% immigration, and we are one of the only countries in the whole world that doesn’t have a single political party in parliament opposing immigration. One of the only ones.

We can’t because we have shagged our way into all your family trees. Many of you don’t even know it… until that day you get your DNA test results. You’re like: “Look at that! I’m like 23% Irish!”

This whole time, I thought I was a Filipino.

Three years ago, we became the first country in the whole world, by popular vote, to legalize gay marriage. One of the most steeped-in-Catholicism countries ever put it to the people and went, “Gay marriage, what do you think?” And collectively we went, “Yeah, feck it, why not, go on there.”

To put that into perspective, in 1993, homosexuality was actually illegal in Ireland. And then the year before last, we found a guy who is half-Indian, and gay, and made him Prime Minister.

You go to places like America, where I live at the moment, and still they’re debating having their first female president. In Ireland, we’ve had 21 years of female presidents.

We were the first country in the whole world to have back-to-back female presidents. We’ve moved on to gay, half-Indian people. We’re woke as feck over there. We don’t even have Chinatown in Ireland. We let them live with us.

All these things have happened in a fraction of my lifetime. Like our lives are full of huge changes, big huge changes, all the time, all around us.

But for some reason, when it comes to one particular thing, one particular feeling, we assume it can’t really be changed. Fear.

So, I did a bit of an experiment a while ago. It was to do the thing I feared the most… every single day… for a year. It was a horrendous plan. Especially because when I went to university, my nickname was Shakin’ Stevens, after the musical icon, I suppose, if you liked it, at the time.

And it wasn’t for the musical ability. I don’t know if you’ve ever had it, when you stand in front of a group of people, and you have to speak, or you’re holding a bit of paper, and you’re speaking, and you are like: “Why is that piece of paper moving? Why am I shaking while I’m speaking?”

That happened for me every time, and it was even worse. It kind of went through my body. So, the shaking went into my shoulders, down through my hips, and I was just involuntarily becoming a kind of Irish salsa dancer. But –

And it was so bad that people would come to see it. That’s a pretty Irish thing, where they’re like: “Look at him, going to pieces. We’d better see that.”

I should have known, I should’ve remembered, that it was possible to change this, but for some reason, I think for a lot of us, when it comes to fear, we forget that we have the power to somehow change that. Sometimes you just need that catalyst to drive change.

For me, unfortunately, it came in the worst possible way. A friend of mine, Arash, who was the most outdoorsy and athletic person I’ve ever met, within the space of 96 hours went from hiking the John Muir Trail in California to lying in the John Muir hospital surrounded by doctors telling him he’d never walk again, after suffering a severe spinal cord injury. He didn’t want to accept that prognosis.

None of his friends wanted to accept that prognosis, so they all rallied to do fundraisers on his behalf to get him to his goal of getting back on his feet again. And it kind of rubbed off on me. And I was like: “Well maybe I could do something to help.”

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So I organized — I just happened to know a comedian who lived next door to me, and I was like: “If I did a comedy show, charity show, would you do it?” And he said yes.

So to Arash, I was like: “Let’s do this comedy show to raise some funds.”

And he’s like: “That’s a great idea man. You’re going to host it?”

I was like: “Oh no.”

He didn’t know about the whole Shakin’ Stevens thing.

Up to that moment, I would have described public speaking as my biggest fear, and as a crippling fear.

But when you’re stood there, and your friend is sat there in a wheelchair, looking at you, that is not the term you ever feel right about using again for a fear. It just made it seem a little bit ridiculous.

And I was like, especially like, Irish people en masse, fair to say, we hate public speaking. But Irish people en masse, we love speaking. We love it.

You’ll be like: “Do you ever speak to people?”

“Oh yeah, all the time.”

“In public?”

“Oh, absolutely, yeah.”

“Public speaking?”

“Oh no, no, no. Not doing that.”

All of a sudden, it just felt nonsensical.

So it was kind of time to at least try and get over this nonsensical fear. But who do you ask for help? Or like, who were the masters of this topic, or where do you go to?

And for me, I was a big fan of the theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, that it takes 10,000 hours doing something to make someone a master.

So I was like: “Who are the masters of this public speaking stuff?”

And the answer seemed unconventional but obvious. It’s like, surely stand-up comedians are doing this more than anybody else. Surely they know a lot about it.

It turns out the average stand-up comedian on the way to making an income from doing stand-up comedy, if they’re good, it takes them on average about seven years to make an income from stand-up comedy.

The ones who are dedicated, they estimate to spend about four hours a day in some way, shape, or form, working on their craft. Four hours a day, by those seven years, is roughly those 10,000 hours. And they do it in the worst conditions possible.

Like, imagine, I live in America. They’re having a tough day and they’re: “I’m having an emotional day today. I feel a lot of anxiety. I went to the supermarket. They’d no avocados. It was horrendous. I went to Bikram yoga, and a guy flatulated. It was just no, no, it’s just too much for me. I put four photos on Instagram. Nobody liked them, not even my mother… Now I’m going to go to this comedy club, make it better, add alcohol, sit there, fold my arms, stare at a person and go: ‘Make me laugh.'”

It just sounds like the worst possible environment to do this.

So my plan was getting considerably worse as I went along. Not only was I going to try and do this public speaking for a year, I was going to do stand-up comedy for a year.

And for this terrible plan, I blame Americans. They’re just a lot more positive than Irish people …unnecessarily sometimes. Like, they will support you with anything. You could be like: “I’m quitting my job. It’s a good job, and I’m going to sell inflatable penguins on the Internet.”

And they’re like: “God that’s a great plan man. You should try that. Bring it in.”

High five.

Sometimes you dismiss Irish people to be like: “Cop on to yourself. Get those penguins down off the Internet: you’re bringing shame to the family.”

I got reminded of this, a bit of a social media thing: I posted a little video of myself kite-surfing under the Golden Gate Bridge. I thought, “This will get the likes.”

Posted this, and the American comments come in: “Dude that looks awesome. You go.”

Next comment: “Oh my God. Looks like you had the perfect day. Hope you had a great time.”

Irish comment: “I hope a shark bites your balls off.”

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And that was my mother.

So, safe to say, I wasn’t really ready to tell Irish people about the plan that I was having. I needed a way to hide it from them. And it turns out it’s quite hard to clock up the stage time needed to get some experience as a comedian if you don’t have any experience.

So, I had to make it look like I’d been around for a while doing comedy. Americans couldn’t really pronounce my last name, a little bit strange even by Irish standards: Nihill. So they kept calling me Irish Dave.

So, I was like: “Well, there’s a stage name that sounds pretty horrendous.”

The idea was that I was already good at doing comedy in Ireland, and I just happened to be in America for a while. It needed to look like he’d been around a while.

So, all right, Irish Dave, let’s go with that, made him a website, made him look pretty good online. Facebook page, Facebook fans, which mildly controversially at the time, you could just buy on the Internet.

So I was pretty big there for a while especially in India. The first booked show I did was five ladies and I. That comedy show was called “Oestrogen entrée, with a side of balls.”

I was that side of balls. A very proud moment as you can imagine.

But thankfully, it went up from there, and I started doing all these comedy clubs and shows and festivals. At the end of that year, I found myself on stage in front of 1400 people in America’s largest storytelling competition. And I’m about to lay an egg.

Because, after your story, they judge you in front of all the other people. So it’s like diving in the Olympics. They actually hold up a scorecard from 0 to 10 about how you just did. That sounds horrendous. That’s like you losing your virginity, and someone just popping up at the end of your bed. I mean like: 2 Room for improvement.

The funny thing is that by the end of this time, I was learning a lot that comedians were learning the hard way. We’d done the charity event for Arash. It went really, really well. Nobody would have noticed Shakin’ Stevens.

What I was learning, over time, and through repetition and knowledge from this group of people, was not how to overcome a fear, but how to manage a fear, and, in my case, how to hide a fear.

And I think we’re sold that quite a lot in life. “Here’s the easy way to overcome your fear.”

You might never overcome it, but just at least tell me how to manage it, like stop the Shakin’ Stevens bit. And a key part of it was just telling yourself in your head that you are not nervous. Of course you are.

The sweating is coming, and I’m like the salsa dancing is coming back, but people are like: “Just tell yourself you’re excited.”

Look at how it were like 2,000 of you today: I was like: “Ah, I’m so excited.”

So, I literally found myself on stage, 1400 people, and there’s three comedians out of ten in this competition of storytelling. So, of course, my theory is they’re the true masters going to come 1, 2 and 3.

And Arash has got wind that I’m in this under the sneaky name Irish Dave, and he’s come, so they’re all there in the audience.

I am laying an egg. I don’t have butterflies in my chest; I have pigeons. If you’d touch my hand before I went on stage, it felt like a mackerel just went like that.

If you’d hugged me, same as today, you’d feel like you’d hugged someone got out of a shower. You’re like: What’s going on there? But it was just hiding them, right?

So we’re doing this competition, and at this stage I had written a book I’d self-published about my experience, and I’d just sold it to a publisher, and they were like: “We’re going to need a new ending on this.”

So I’m like: “Winning this competition, that could be a good ending.”

So towards the end of this competition – 1, 2 and 3, as I anticipated, are the comedians – and I’m winning, and there’s only one person left.

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And this lady goes – no comedic background or training – gets on stage and is amazing and kills it. And they’re in bits laughing at everything, and she wins.

I was like: “Oh well, there goes me ending here.”

And I was like: “How did you do that? I was fascinated. I’ve studied this for ages, but you wiped the floor with everybody.”

She’s: “I’ve been studying comedians a lot. I’ve been reading a lot about it.”

I was like: “What did you read? Tell me. Anything super helpful? I’m publishing a book on this.”

And she’s like: “This one.” Pulling up her notes, she says, “This book was really helpful. ‘Do You Talk Funny?’ by a guy called David Nihill.”

I say, “You beat me with my own book.”

Oh! And I thought, right, that’s the end of that.

Told the story, and sure enough, a week or so after, this guy contacts me.

“Would you be interested in doing a TED talk? I liked your story. Would you like to share it?”

And I said, “Ooh, now this would be a good ending.”

And then: “Wait a minute. I have a friend called Arash, and he’s the reason I got into all this mess in the first place, and all this lunacy started. His story’s more powerful and better than anyone’s I think I’ve ever heard. Could I send you a little video of him? He did a practice run with an audience using comedians’ techniques. Could I send you that? Maybe you’d consider booking him?”

And he booked him in my place. And I was there backstage watching when Arash got a 51-second standing ovation as he told everybody how he trained for one whole year, keeping it a secret, with the sole goal of standing again on his own two feet so he could propose to his beautiful girlfriend, eye to eye.

He didn’t want to do it from his wheelchair. And, of course, she said yes.

So, at the end, he stood up from his wheelchair, on stage, doing something doctors told me he’d never do again. She came out and joined them, and the whole place just lost their mind.

And I get hairs in the back of my neck standing up just telling you guys about it.

The comedy event we did became a recurring event called “Comedy for a Spinal Cause”. Today, we’ve raised for people with spinal cord injuries just over $45,000.

Arash wrote a book – Arash wrote a book about his experiences. He started a non-profit. He continues his recovery, and continues to be an inspiration around him.

Six weeks from today, in this very hall in Manchester, there’s going to be a musical act planned. Ironically, his name is Shakin’ Stevens. What are the chances!?

If you take nothing away from all this lunacy, it’s our lives are full of change, and, a lot of the time, we can drive and control that change more than we think, whether it’s just some involuntary dancing moves, a feeling that you have, or a whole country.

You might not overcome a fear, but with help from the right people, I believe you can learn to manage it.

Public speaking, ultimately, if it’s one of your biggest fears, like it’s mine and so many other people’s out there, try and tell yourself you’re excited, no matter how many people are looking at you.

Remember, at the end of the day, it’s just you sharing your story. You know it better than anyone else, and you never know what’ll happen when you tell it.

And if you need help along the way, ask a comedian. I believe they’re the world’s true masters.

Thank you very much.


Download This Transcript as PDF here: Standing-up to Fear_ David Nihill at TEDxManchester (Transcript)


Resources for Further Reading:

Have Courage, Be Fearless: Les Brown (Full Transcript)

How I Overcame My Fear of Public Speaking: Danish Dhamani (Transcript)

The Funny Side of Fear – Conquering Anxiety Through Comedy: Daniel Hardman at TEDxDouglas (Transcript)

Tim Ferriss: Why You Should Define Your Fears Instead of Your Goals (Transcript)