Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Getting Past Your Worst Fear

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in 2010

It is often reported that our number one fear is not death, but public speaking. I still remember in sixth grade having to stand up in front of my class and give a presentation about Eskimos. I knew my information: I had done research, wrote a report, and had my notes right in front of me – but as I stood in front of the class, I was overwhelmed by fear. Determined to make that awful feeling go away as soon as possible, I raced through the presentation at a mile-a-minute pace and was incredibly thankful to be done – that is until my teacher told me that I needed to repeat the presentation because I had talked so fast that no one had understood a word I had said.

My fear and loathing of public speaking grew from there. I can remember the awful introductory remarks I gave at a high school event and all of the times I tried to avoid speaking in class or avoid even taking classes that required me to speak at all. As I entered the working world, I realized that I could not hide in the back of the classroom anymore – if I wanted to be successful, I had to figure out how to speak in public without feeling like I was going to die.

My journey to better public speaking has been a string of experiments. First, I tried writing out everything I wanted to say in long form, printing it in size 14 or 16 font, and holding on to the paper for dear life as I stood in front of a group to speak. That technique did not work for me for three reasons: first, having to read off of a sheet of paper meant that I was not looking at the people I was talking to; second, if I ever lost my place I would get totally flustered, turn red, and fumble my words; and third, I sounded like a robot.

On to the next experiment: someone had suggested that instead of writing out my entire speech, I should write it in outline form just to keep myself on track and make sure I did not forget my keep points. When I used that technique, I still ran into the same problems: I could not help but look down at the paper and I would get flustered if I missed something.

Then one day, I had the ah-ha moment I had been waiting for: there is no such thing as public speaking. The only thing that exists is conversation. You can have a conversation with one person, or five people, or five hundred people, or five thousand people, but it is still a conversation. When we have conversations one-on-one, we usually do not stand there with a written-out script or an outline of our talking points. We just talk. When we forget what we wanted to say, we do not tell the person we are talking to “hold on a minute, I missed something. I forgot what I was going to say. Let me look a my notes.” Instead, we ad-lib and we continue on until we find our footing again. Why would “public speaking” be any different?

My big discovery made speaking in public more approachable to me. It made it less something reserved for the great orators of the world and more something that we are all capable of doing. Changing the way I see public speaking does not mean that I never get nervous. It just means that underneath that healthy level of nervousness about the speech or presentation I am about to give, there is a sense of calm and joy in knowing that I am preparing to have a fabulous conversation about a subject that I am interested in and care about. What great conversation are you going to have today?

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