It wasn’t easy, but it got easier – and then it was almost exhilarating. Fun just isn’t the right word to describe it.
It was more like a feeling of relief and then, gradually it became pride knowing what a primal challenge I had overcome (more on that in a minute) and that ultimately brought a sense of accomplishment.
I’m talking about public speaking – or making a presentation to any group of people larger than three or four.
If you read this far and you already feel a knot in your stomach – I’m especially talking to you.
My preference, of course, was to avoid these situations and I became pretty good at strategically dodging them. I was close to thirty years old when a situation arose in my family where I needed to speak at a wedding event. The role actually belonged to my father, but he was unwilling, so I felt I needed to step up.
Once I made the decision to speak, I took on the challenge like any other hurdle I needed to overcome, in my introvert style. Research. Seeking out how I could learn what I needed to know quickly to succeed became my mission. Remain calm. Figure it out.
I had heard of Toastmasters, but I didn’t know much about it. I located a group in the southern California town I lived in at that time and decided to check it out. I observed a few meetings, as a guest, and was relieved to find that everyone was friendly and welcoming.
As a longstanding organization with a tried and true structure, Toastmasters has an easy to follow system of easing into the process at a comfortable pace.
I spent a few weeks as an observer (reflective learner that I am) just taking it all in and learning the cadence of the meetings before I felt comfortable enough to get involved.
The day of my first speech I was completely stressed out. I felt so sick I couldn’t do it. It felt like sheer dread and panic and I would get that dull feeling in my solar plexus just by thinking about it. I cancelled and rescheduled to be on the next meeting’s agenda.
By the time that day rolled around again, I felt prepared (a core need for introverts). I was nervous, but had enough time to get my mind wrapped around it all and I was feeling more confident.
I delivered my assigned “Ice-breaker” speech to a group of twelve people in the prescribed 4 – 6 minutes. Everyone was extremely supportive and the feedback was practical and helpful. Getting past the first speech was the biggest hurdle. I completed ten speeches that year to earn my ‘Competent Toastmaster’ award – and I spoke at the wedding with a solid foundation, strategies to calm my mind, and a little more confidence than I could’ve ever imagined.
It’s been fifteen years since my time at ‘Smoothtalkers Toastmasters in San Diego, California. I’ve used my speaking skills in so many ways I wouldn’t have even tried without that training. I became a workshop leader and trainer for an education company. I volunteered to introduce company executives at huge conferences a number of times while working for a large corporation. I spoke to large groups (my own team) many times over the next fifteen years, appealed successfully to the Board of Directors and key decision makers to keep forty-two restaurants open during the recession which saved many jobs for my team, delivered four commencement speeches as a college President to large auditoriums of graduates, families, and friends, and led daily kick off meetings to two shifts twice daily while working in the health care industry.
Looking back, my original hurdle is a distant memory. I do remember clearly that I feared feeling vulnerable and being judged. I had always preferred to be supportive behind the scenes and to stay off the radar quietly doing my work. And yet, I was always called to lead and it was my passion to do so. Seeking out support in order to become more comfortable with a necessary skill is really not so hard to do. Especially if it’s necessary in helping to reach your goals and dreams.
Certainly, the delivery of my speech wasn’t perfect. Not even close, but at least I knew how to prepare and that gave me the strength to take steps forward and let my voice be heard.
As a result of these small steps (which felt like huge leaps at the time), I was afforded many more opportunities that allowed me to step up and take the floor. These other opportunities have become accomplishments I feel proud of as a leader.
I spoke to a woman this week who told me about her fear of public speaking. She shared that she has many regrets as a result. It’s not the first time I’ve heard about the fear and the corresponding regrets along life’s path caused by what was described as sheer terror at the thought or a ‘paralyzing fear’. Certainly, I understand.
I’ve heard it said that as humans we are hardwired not to isolate ourselves on display in full view of a group while simultaneously drawing attention to ourselves. It’s tied to our survival instincts. It triggers an adrenaline surge as though you are separated from your tribe, at risk, alone on the savannah, shouting “lunch is served”…..and you are the lunch.
Our preferred environment is relatively out of view in a safe place or (in the audience) with the tribe, but never alone on display with many eyes “tracking” our every move. It’s akin to being hunted. Our amygdala goes into overdrive and we freeze, or flee, if we dared to put ourselves in the situation in the first place.
To avoid this ‘amygdala hijacking’ in the case of public speaking, we need to understand this concept and be ready for it so our neo-cortex or ‘rational brain’ can take over and we are able to talk ourselves down from the feelings of distress and panic. There is no real threat. No need for fight, flight, or freeze. We are not about to be eaten.
The good news is that by understanding the biological response, we can overcome it. Knowledge is power. Couple that with preparation and practice to desensitize the experience and things start to feel much better. I highly recommend speaker training for introverts such as myself. There are many. Toastmasters is a great place to start exploring.
Here are 10 tips to help you overcome the fear and prepare for a well delivered and confident speech:
1. Choose a topic you are passionate about.
2. Conduct a dress rehearsal or trial run. Video tape yourself giving your presentation in advance.
3. Take the guesswork out of your presentation by scripting your speech and mapping your movement. Rehearse repeatedly until it begins to feel more natural.
4. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
5. Know your facts, but remember your message so you don’t get bogged down by the facts.
6. Visit the venue. Familiarize yourself with the space you’ll be speaking in, in advance.
7. Before you speak, take a time out. Find a quiet space to recharge, meditate, center yourself, and get calm.
8. Smile, make eye contact, shake hands and connect one on one with some of your audience beforehand.
9. Stay aware of your breathing. Relax and remind yourself that you know your message well.
10. Know that when it’s over you will celebrate your accomplishment and return to a restorative niche to recharge your batteries. You were courageous, you inspired others and you made a difference.
The next time you find yourself called to step out of your comfort zone with a presentation to be made at work, a speaking opportunity to promote your business, a speech, a toast, or an awards ceremony….don’t panic.
With preparation, practice, and an understanding of why you feel uncomfortable, you’ll be ready to meet the challenge. Why not start now? I’m pretty sure you’ll be glad that you did.
Tell me about your experiences below in the comments and share any tips that helped you speak confidently.
Questions? Write to me at Stefanie@LeadwithConfidence.com. I read and respond to every one.
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We need introverts to share their gifts with the world and lead with confidence.
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