Friends. Let’s talk about public speaking.
The idea alone can illicit strong reactions – everything from excitement, to nausea, to let’s-not-even-go-there. It’s not something that comes easily to many of us, if at all.As a kid, I had my fair share of ‘spotlight’ activities; mostly dance recitals and spelling bees. (The spelling bees were back in the day, when the hardest word I could spell was ‘television’. My spelling career has since halted.) I did those things not because I wasn’t shy, but because they all had a structure to them. Every dance had a routine, every word had letters to spell, and these “presentations” were basically done by putting my child brain on auto-pilot.
When I hit the tween years, I didn’t want that spotlight anymore. Whatever groove I’d developed in childhood disappeared by then, along with my tolerance for crowds. So when teachers started requiring me to actually present on projects to my class, rather than just handing them in, I wasn’t happy. Who on earth wants to stand in front of a room to be judged by their peers anyway?
Even if I loved the topic, or knew a ton about it, I still felt this way. That’s the annoying part about being afraid to speak in public: it robs you of the confidence you need to share your voice.
Fast-forward to a few weeks ago. I was asked to speak to a group of nonprofit professionals about my organization’s experience with Salesforce. I’m much better at presenting now than I was back then, but still, I was nervous. What if people hated what I had to say, or how I said it? I’d only ever presented to my teammates, and they sort of had to like me. What if presenting to an outside group was different, and I totally flopped??
You know. Typical, nervous-person questions.
Yet they were the reason why I ultimately said yes. If you get nothing else from reading this blog, I hope you’ll take this: fear of flopping is never a good reason to turn down an opportunity, especially one that’s bound to push you in the right direction.
Plus, I sort of put my foot in my mouth at the last meeting by offering to share at all. Love of data got the better of me, and I couldn’t back out now; even if the thought of presenting to 30 strangers made me antsy.
When I got to work on the actual presentation, the time flew. If you ever get the chance to speak to a room full of strangers about a topic that you’re really into, you gotta do it. For your audience, for your development, for your soul.
And no, designing my presentation was not the moment when I came to my realization.
That moment came the morning of my presentation, after I got to the venue. I’d spent the previous night rehearsing my presentation 11 times (some would say overkill, I call it needing-to-feel-as-prepared-as-possible) and I was ready to preach my word to that 30-something audience. Needless to say, I was frazzled when I counted more than 60 people in the room that day.
My heart started to pound, right as that what-did-I-get-myself-into feeling started to sink in. BUT, my stomach was completely fine. It wasn’t doing its typical nervous lurch at the prospect of having to talk to all these people.
That’s when I knew I’d finally conquered my fear.
For all the years that I spent worrying about having to speak in public, I always thought that the problem was my confidence. I needed to FEEL like I could get in front of a bunch of people and say something worthwhile. If I felt that way, then I wouldn’t be nervous anymore…and therefore I could actually do it.
That’s why I signed up for a “Confidence with Public Speaking” class two years ago. I expected the instructor to share tips & tricks for feeling more confident in situations like this. Instead, she told us the opposite; that we shouldn’t wait to feel confident when we’re speaking in public, because confidence isn’t a real concept. At least, not on a measurable, physiological level.
I was waiting to feel something that my brain could never exhibit.
I had a hard time believing it then. Even now, I’m skeptical. But if she was right, then what was the secret to getting in front of a room full of people without feeling the urge to run to the bathroom every time? “Practice.”
Yeah, I thought that sounded too simple at the time too. But since taking that class, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to get practice in – thanks in large part to support from my managers – and it has made a difference. I went from feeling sick to my stomach before a presentation, to getting a tolerable wave of pre-talk jitters. That’s two years of progress on a problem that’s frustrated me for far longer.
And practice wasn’t the only piece. A few other things had to happen for me to get this far. More on all of those next time. The most important thing, however, was redefining my definition of “conquer”.
Frankly, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a presentation I give that doesn’t make me nervous. I need some level of nerves, because it helps keep me on my toes. If I didn’t worry about doing a good job with these things, I probably wouldn’t.
Which is totally fine. I get that now.
But there’s something to be said about managing the physical symptoms, and mental doubts, that come along with public speaking anxiety. Not to say that those things are easy to correct – because they’re not – but they are nonetheless concrete things that can be worked on with time and practice.
That, to me, makes the public speaking hurdle feel within reach. It’s not this giant mystery that only some of us can tackle. Public speaking is an exercise, one that your body & mind can improve on with with time and effort.
I still have a lot to learn about how to speak well in front of an audience. But knowing that I can do it at all, regardless of if I feel nervous, is one friggin awesome accomplishment.
What’s your public speaking story?