How I Conquered by Fear of Public Speaking: A Year of Speaking Boldly

Photo by  Teemu Paananen  on  Unsplash

Up until my senior capstone presentation, I would have told you my feelings about public speaking were positive.  In fact, I grew up performing; between dance, musicals, plays, church recitals, and school presentations, I was comfortable, and even enjoyed, being on a stage or in front of a room.  For example, there is a home video of me in kindergarten narrating “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” (in Spanish, no less) while my classmates acted it out and I am vying for as much attention as possible.  This was indicative of how much I enjoyed performing in front of people the first 22 years of my life. I saw speaking and performing as an opportunity to engage others and share something that I was interested in or passionate about.

After my capstone presentation; however, my feelings shifted from positive to fearful.  Why? I’ll blame a lethal mix of too little sleep, too much stress, one too many Starbucks Red Eyes, and too little food leading up to the presentation.  The combination caused me to faint mid-presentation. My blood sugar dropped from lack of food and the effects of too much caffeine, stress, and exhaustion. Thankfully, another student in the front row (in his ROTC uniform, no less) jumped up and caught me as I fell, sparing me from additional injuries.  

From that point, I started to fear public speaking.  I worried that something similar would happen, and that it would not end as gracefully as my capstone project.  Even though I logically knew that the situation was isolated, my body still went into overdrive every time I had to speak or present in front of a crowd.  I was in good company - there are estimates that 75% of Americans fear public speaking. That’s 238 million people!

Rather than confront my fear, I avoided it.  When I had to present, I created methods which increased my comfort level, such as putting a lot of information on a slide, or sticking to basic subject matter rather than sharing anything personal or telling stories that might make me more vulnerable.  It was not until a mentor gave me feedback on my presentation style, and told me that it would hold me back from leading at the level I aspired to, that I decided to take a different approach.

This feedback was the motivation I needed to do something different, but I was not sure where to start.  I spent a lot of time reading and researching presentation tips, observing other presenters in person and through online TED talks, and talking to public speaking coaches.  Over time, I compiled a lot of information from many sources about how to develop presentation skills and to inspire people through what I said. Then, I watched Susan Cain’s TED Talk about the power of introverts and heard her challenge herself to have a “year of speaking dangerously”.  This challenge was a way for her to step outside her comfort zone and become more comfortable promoting this idea she had across thousands of people. I thought, if she can do it, I can do it, and used the idea to start my own year of speaking boldly.

Using a challenge forced me to add structure to an ambiguous piece of feedback.  I decided that I would present at least once a month, using the skills that I had acquired to make my presentations more engaging, interesting, and collaborative.  I would keep adding and practicing new skills over time, so that by the end of the year, I was a dynamic, interesting, and inspiring speaker. I also asked people to share feedback with me over time so I could reflect on the positives and continue to improve in other areas.

That was four years ago. Since then, my challenge of speaking boldly has opened my eyes - and my life - to opportunities that I never imagined. While I still get nervous before presentations, I also have fun during them and I can tell my audience is enjoying themselves, which makes it even more rewarding for me. Presentations give me energy and give me a boost rather than deplete me. And, seeing that hard work, good advice, practice, and working with others can measurably improve something for me has given me the confidence to try other things that seem challenging or impossible.

One thing I wanted when I started this challenge was a cheat sheet that would help me structure my preparation and remind me to use various techniques and tactics that make speakers more effective. Since I never found one, I created one. This goes through my entire thought process and the methods I use to prepare, but is brief enough for the busiest of professionals to use. Good luck!