A fear of public speaking

I recently read a blog about being shy, and another about overcoming fear.  Both blogs stirred my memories and got me thinking about one of the moments in my life when I took what was for me a huge risk.  The risk paid off greatly, and my life changed because of it. 

shyDuring my formative years, specifically all the way through high school, I was painfully shy.  When I was in my senior year of high school, for example, I was hired as a cashier in a department store.  I struggled to talk to the customers.  Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t rude, and I would smile.  But that’s about it!  I would smile, ring them up, say “thank you,” respond if asked a question, but I certainly did not start conversations with the customers, and I always had a knot in my stomach about anything I did say.  I don’t remember if I met their eyes or not, but I remember feeling incredibly stuck in my inability to freely talk.  And this problem was stifling me.

Several years after graduation, I started working at “Ma Bell” and after a time, I was promoted from union positions to management.  By this time, I had become somewhat more comfortable talking, but mostly in oneon-one or two-on-one situations.  I still was incredibly uncomfortable talking in front of groups.  So when I started in management, which necessitated that I attend meetings with more than two people, I realized I had a big problem.  I wouldn’t volunteer information, even if I had something of substance to share.  If asked a direct question, I would answer (but usually wasn’t breathing properly!), but I wouldn’t proactively share information even if I had something of importance to share.  I knew I was going to kill any chance I had of moving up or improving myself if I couldn’t get over this fear of talking.  And I knew it wasn’t going to just go away.  I had to do something about it.

So I did.

I volunteered to introduce two people at a department conference.  I figured that would be a relatively easy way to get in front of people and say something that didn’t really reflect on me and my knowledge.  I figured if I could stand up in front of 50 or so people, and talk about someone’s bio, which would take a few minutes at the most, that would at least be a start.

So the day before the seminar, we received the details, and I started freaking out.  Not only was the event going to be bigger than I thought, but the first person I was introducing had a difficult last name and was a new senior executive at my company.  I was soooooo freaked out.  The night before the event, I wandered around my home repeating her last name.  Reading the bio.  Repeating the last name.  Over and over again.  I did NOT want to mess up (which I think was part of my fear about speaking out in public – I didn’t want to make a mistake).  I didn’t sleep well that night.

So the day arrives, and I have to introduce my first person around 10am.  The event started at 8.  I must have visited the rest room four times between 8 and 10am.  I was a wreck.  I couldn’t breathe properly.  And then it’s my turn.  Oh, did I mention that I found out that morning I had to actually walk up on a stage to a podium?  And did I mention there were 200+ people in the room?  My legs were shaking.  I made it up the stairs to the stage, and up to the podium, and I faced the audience and I pulled out the paper (hands shaking).  And I started by reading her name.  And…. 

I pronounced her last name fine.  But I messed up her first name.  A simple first name.  And I made a mistake.  Then I started reading her bio and I realized at the same time I had messed up her first name, so I paused and said, “uh, er, I mean….” and I said her name correctly.  But by now I was a nervous wreck until I looked up and saw the lady I was introducing grinning widely and mouthing to me, “It’s ok”.  I didn’t miraculously feel better or even do better, but I felt a small amount of relief that making a mistake didn’t really mean that much in the grand scheme of things.  I finished my introduction, and went to sit down and realized after I was back in my seat, that this really wasn’t so bad after all.  And I went back up to the stage 15 minutes later to introduce my next person and I was definitely more relaxed and did a better job. 

public speakingThis one little task, volunteering to introduce two people at a conference had a HUGE impact on my life, both in terms of work and in terms of personal life.  There was no huge change immediately, but I realized that I could speak out in public and I’d live through it and I realized if I made an error, I would be ok.  So I did a lot of other things to help me improve in this area.  I took public speaking courses.  I made it a point to speak out in meetings, making small comments at first, and going on to bigger things.  I eventually went to school to get my college degree, and while there took debate classes.  At work, I was asked to lead some training classes and in my first class was told by someone who was in attendance that I was the most energetic speaker he had seen in over 20 years at the company.  Wow, that helped!   I learned to breathe before I started speaking.  As part of one course, I was videotaped and I realized when watching it, that I didn’t look on the outside nearly as nervous as I was on the inside.  

I kept working on my speaking skills and I went on to be promoted many times because I had learned to communicate well.  I eventually led staff meetings with my own staff.  I gave presentations to small and large groups.  And a few years before I retired, I even did a presentation in rhyme (another blog perhaps) in front of a group of several hundred people. 

I then selected a second career, this one in real estate, partly based on the fact that it allows me the ability to meet people, and talk to people, because now I find I truly enjoy speaking!  What a turnaround.

Bottom line?  If there is something you fear, it may be getting in your way of being all you can be.  And if you are painfully shy, that IS in the way of you being all you can be.  If you want to move past that fear, you can, but you have to take proactive measures to move forward.   It won’t be easy, but it is definitely a possibility!  Take it from me.


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