From Public Freaking To Public Speaking

By Sophie Shepherd

For most of my life, my feelings about public speaking have bordered on phobic and I have avoided it like the plague. I’m not proud to admit this, but in college I once feigned food poisoning to avoid a mandatory presentation. My irrational fear of speaking to a bunch of half-awake, probably-high 20-year-olds trumped my GPA and pride.

I have gotten better in recent years—at first not by choice, but by necessity. My job requires me to present and explain work both internally and to clients. Though I still get nervous before presenting, as time passes and I gain more experience, I have become more and more confident. Plus, if I faked intestinal distress every time I had to present my work, I would be unemployed (and friendless, and a psycho).

Jumping In

After acknowledging that public speaking will be an essential part of my future, I realized that I couldn’t hide from it anymore.

I brought up my fear and goals to some coworkers, and they recommended that I read the book Confessions of a Public Speaker, by Scott Berkun. The part that resonated with me most is when Berkun lays out all the reasons why speaking in front of people is not that scary. He lists a bunch of stuff that really is scary, which made my irrational fear seem just that: irrational. I started to realize that I was more scared of seeming scared on stage than the actual speaking part. I was living the FDR quote, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Between the book and the small amount of practice I had at work, the only thing left for me to do to get over my fear was to actually speak. I’ve seen that episode of MTV True Life about phobias, so I knew that the only way to overcome one was to face it head on. On a scale of one to I’d-rather-sacrifice-my-left-foot, speaking alone, on a stage, was much closer to the latter. Instead of jumping in headfirst like a brave person would do, I planned out public speaking stepping stones to ease myself into it.

Stepping Stones

The first thing I did was agree to be on a panel at SXSW with three other smart people. I like to think of panels as the gateway drug of public speaking. You get the experience of being in front of people, but you don’t need to prepare much. And, if you stumble over your words or pause for an uncomfortably long time, there’s someone there to step in.

I felt shaky and vomity the whole time, but I stuck to my guns and answered the questions that the moderator asked us. I was really proud of myself for following through and actually doing it, and I got nice feedback on Twitter afterwards. It made me feel thankful for the supportive industry we’re a part of.

After surviving the panel, the next engagement I signed myself up for was speaking to a group of students at Texas State University with a colleague, Kevin Sharon. On the panel I had been able to sit on a stool, but for this, I had to stand up in front of people (shaky legs and all). I was responsible for knowing my parts and continuing the flow of the talk without the assistance of a moderator. Though it was more challenging than the panel, I still had Kevin there to hand things over to when I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. As Yesenia describes in her article, it’s a lot less scary to have a speaking partner up there with you.

The third and most recent time I spoke was at Artifact Conference. Once again I spoke with Kevin, but this time we reformatted our talk so that he would cover the first half and I would take the second half. This meant it was up to me to speak for 20 minutes in front of 300 people. Ack, right?!

But the greatest thing happened as I made my way up to the stage. Though I was a little nervous, I felt okay. I couldn’t hear my heartbeat pounding in my head. My palms weren’t sweating. I didn’t regret not wearing an adult diaper. I wasn’t that nervous. The part of my brain that controls fight-or-flight had finally accepted that public speaking wasn’t the most terrifying thing that could happen to me. It was smooth sailing.

Raising the bar

When I first started to speak, my only goal was to get over the fear itself, but I have gotten so much more out of it than that. I’ve made friends and been part of conversations I wouldn’t have been a part of otherwise. I’ve seen other people speak at conferences and grown to understand the power of a great speaker.

I feel like I’m only at the beginning of this journey, and I plan to raise the bar higher and higher each time I speak. In the near future, I hope to speak alone for a full 40 minutes or so, on a topic I feel passionate about. I’d love to travel somewhere overseas to speak. After that, a self-imposed challenge could be to branch out of the comfort of the web community and speak to a different crowd. Each time I’ll do something that scares me a little more, and who knows where it will take me.

I encourage you to face your fears as well, whether they are speaking or otherwise. You’ll never know what great things lie on the other side of them until you do!

12 thoughts on “From Public Freaking To Public Speaking

  1. Eileen Webb

    Thanks for this great article, Sophie. I especially love the idea of stepping stones – I think a big part of our public speaking fears come from the simple fact that we have no place to practice. It’s crazy to expect ourselves to stand up and be freakin’ Karen McGrane (HI KAREN) when the last time we spoke in public was middle school.

    We can’t form good habits – enunciating, gesturing, remembering to breathe – unless we find places to practice. Practice talks don’t even have to be about your job – speak at your local library about how to check out Kindle books, or to a garden club about growing heirloom tomatoes. Standing up in front of any group of people will start to calm down those fears and give you a chance to form new patterns in your body and speech.

    Reply
    1. Sophie Shepherd

      Eileen – I totally agree! In retrospect I should have talked about this in the article, but teaching small classes (around 8-12 people) for Girl Develop It has helped a lot. It is very unnatural for me to stand up in front of people and talk about myself, but teaching a topic I know well, with a curriculum, has helped tremendously.

      Reply
  2. Frank S. Adamo

    It’s great that you took the plunge–in small steps. Taking the plunge headfirst can be counterproductive. My dad didn’t swim. While in Chicago, when he was in college, a group went to Lake Michigan and they decided to push my dad into the water. Instead of learning to swim by taking the plunge, he never learned to swim. As a kid, we would vacation in Tampa. Of course, coming from the midwest, we all would go to the beach. All of us–except for my dad–would go into the water. My dad loved the beach, yet he’d never approached the water.

    And Sophie, I had an experience similar to yours. EVERY college student was required to take this one specific class before graduating. It was a class on public speaking where a group of about 20 students would sit around the table in the boardroom and discuss the events of the day. I had things to say, but I never opened my mouth for fear of being ridiculed. The only way I passed the class was to write a report on why I never spoke up.

    I went much of my life, not fearing public speaking, but fearing being ridiculed once again. I was ridiculed in a high school class–by a teacher. For nearly 35 years, my self-confidence shattered. Until one day, I joined Toastmasters. Eileen, there is a place to practice in a positive environment. Toastmasters (www.toastmasters.org) is a worldwide organization for improving one’s communications and leadership skills. Far more than that, by learning to speaking in public, being evaluated (not criticized), and by participating in impromptu speaking (called Table Topics)–all in a positive and friendly environment, members learn, not only the skills for speaking in public and learning to lead, members also regain their confidence we had as a child.

    Yes, we had the confidence as a child because we were born with only two fears, that of loud noise (such as thunder) and falling (heights). So, my recommendation is to join Toastmasters. Even if you have been practicing at local clubs and events, Toastmasters will guide members through a series of speeches with specific objectives, such as get to the point, body language, speech organization, voice variety, just to name a few.

    Reply
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