Are you terrified of public speaking? Do you go out of your way to avoid having to make a speech or presentation? Fear of death and fear of public speaking are reported to be the two things people fear the most. I can attest to the fear of public speaking part as I grew up being absolutely terrified of having to speak in front of a group of people. But that is changing for me. If you are deer-caught-in-the-headlights terrified of public speaking, hear my story.
In grade school I was the kid who seemed to have the hardest time doing an oral report. I would shake uncontrollably, and when I would tense up to try to stop my shaking it made it that much worse. Kids used to make fun of me. I started going out of my way to avoid having to do an oral report.
I recall being absent every day that I was supposed to give a 10 minute speech in health class. I was hoping the teacher would forget about the fact that I was the only person in class who had not given my speech. No such luck. She called me up, and I was shaking so badly that a boy in the front row actually stood up and took my visual aid that I was holding up (or shaking really) and walked it around the class for me, daring people with his eyes to laugh at me. This was the class bully and even he felt sorry for me.
In junior high school I had one successful experience doing a speech. I did my science fair project on the subject of dreams and dream interpretation and I was required to give a 30 minute presentation on my topic. I was up in front of the room for 90 minutes! My audience wouldn’t let me sit down. They were so fascinated by what I was saying that the teacher just told me to keep going. And it was the first time I was able to speak in front of a group without shaking. Why? Because I realized I knew more about my subject than any other person in the room, including the teacher, and I was totally confident about what I was saying. That seemed to be the trick for me; knowing my subject completely.
In high school things got bad again. I wasn’t very good in American History class and we had to do a 30 minute presentation. I was throwing up before school. My mom told me to skip it and take the “F” but I pushed myself to go. I spoke so rapidly that I was done in 10 minutes instead of 30. I don’t think I breathed more than twice during the entire speech. After that experience I vowed never to give a speech again.
In college I avoided taking the required Speech 100 course as long as I could. The semester before graduating with a bachelor’s degree I was finally forced to take it. I’d been hoping they would change the requirement before I had to take it. The night before my first speech I was sort of praying for the apocalypse since that would solve my problem. Fear of dying? Pffft …
Once out of college I promised myself I’d never be in a position where I had to give a speech again. That seemed to be working pretty well. Until January 2006 when I started this blog, became a psychic medium, and pretty much saw my future. There’s going to be me on a stage in front of lots of people and it’s barreling towards me at breakneck speed. I decided that instead of fighting it I would prepare for it. This was a big step for me really. I am very content to never speak in front of an audience in my life. Happy to phone it in, write it down, or let someone else do it. But apparently that’s not in my cards.
So I did the only thing that I thought would help me. I joined Toastmasters International. Steve had joined a couple years before me, but he loves speaking and he’s really good at it and I don’t think he was facing down his fear when he joined. In joining Toastmasters I was pushing my boundaries, cutting a swath through fear, and turning a blind eye to retreat. I went kicking and screaming but I went. I did my ice breaker speech (4-6 minutes, tell us all about yourself, go) and was surprised to find that half way through my speech I actually started to enjoy myself. I thought maybe I’d been replaced by a clone in the middle of my speech. But no, it was all me.
I’ve been a member of Toastmasters for more than 18 months and I’ve spoken in my club meeting over 60 times. In Toastmasters you usually have an opportunity to speak at every meeting (if your club is small enough). And I learned something. Speaking in front of an audience isn’t so bad. In fact, it can be kind of fun and even empowering. I’m no expert yet, believe me. My butterflies aren’t flying in formation, but I can see that someday they will. I can see that someday I will be on stage speaking about something I’m passionate about and still be able to breath. I know that someday I’ll leave the stage while thunderous applause follows me and be glad I had joined Toastmasters before I had to give that speech.
Sometimes all it takes to conquer a fear is to be willing to take the first step. Even when you don’t feel capable or qualified. Even when you don’t want to but you know it’s the best thing for you. Even when you’d rather die than push through it. What is it they say? “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” That sums up my entire experience with speaking in public. Everytime you face down a fear it holds less power over you.
And it’s not just fear of public speaking I’m talking about. Are you avoiding something you know you should or want to do because of fear? Are you afraid to ask someone out on a date? Afraid to ask for a raise at work? Afraid to admit you’re addicted to something? Face the fear. There is nothing more empowering than facing down a fear. Go a few rounds with it and you’ll find it only holds as much power as you’re willing to give to it.
If you’re fearful of public speaking I highly recommend Toastmasters. It doesn’t matter if you have to give presentations for your job or if you’re a teacher or if you’re someone who just wants to be more comfortable speaking, Toastmasters is the place to conquer your fear of public speaking. I can’t thank my club, Voice Links, enough for their support and encouragement in helping me learn to speak well and without debillitating fear. I wish I could go back in time to my fourth grade class where I nearly trembled right out of my socks and tell that frightened little girl that someday she would enjoy and even look forward to giving a speech. I’m sure she would have fainted from disbelief and shock.
Don’t go to your grave avoiding anything you really want to do because you’re too afraid. Barrel right through the fear and fling it behind you. Step on it, bury it, shot-put it to the moon. Just don’t let it stop you. The power is all yours!