This year, I resolved to work on my fear of public speaking. Most people share this fear. I think it could be taught in such a way that we learn to address the physiological response of anxiety. As I've become more comfortable at a lectern, I've realized that speaking over the feeling of nervous dread is a simple skill. Anyone can develop it. Why let fear run your life? Personally, I refuse to be bad at something just because it scares me. I will confront it until I dominate it.
My heart pounds. I get "butterflies in my stomach." This still happens, but it's getting better. When I started, my thighs would tremble, and it would actually get worse after I finished my speech. Once my legs shook so hard when I was walking back to my seat that I thought I would collapse. This is extreme, because I'm a marathon runner and I can carry a 42-pound backpack up six thousand feet of elevation. Sometimes I feel that my voice is shaky, although people in my Toastmasters club swear they can't tell. I would think I was turning purple, but nobody could see anything. The intense physical reactions we experience while feeling stage fright are a thousand times more intense inside our bodies than anything that might be visible to an observer. When I resolved to stop talking about my nervousness, I was surprised to find that I felt it much less.
The first thing I learned about nervousness is that even professional entertainers still feel it. A parallel is exercise-induced asthma, a complaint shared by many Olympian athletes. Just because we have a natural physical reaction in a certain situation does not mean it is our fate never to engage in that activity. We are not controlled by our bodies. Once upon a time, we had trouble controlling our sphincter muscles, sitting up, and walking, but we learned to do those things. Standing in front of people and talking is not in itself physically challenging for the average person. (I've seen Zach Anner perform live, and if he can do it from a wheelchair, then I feel that I have no excuses).
The feeling of anxiety and nervousness comes from a hormonal secretion. The adrenal medulla releases epinephrine. That's all. This hormonal secretion is the exact same substance that is released when we're excited. The physical feeling is the same. The only difference is in how we interpret it emotionally. If we tell ourselves stories such as: I hate this, I suck at this, I have to do this, I'm going to mess up, then we're going to feel dread. When we change the story, we change the feeling. It takes repetition to brainwash ourselves until the new story becomes the core belief. They're going to love this. It's going to be awesome.
I ran a marathon in 2014. In 2010, I couldn't run around the block without stopping. I had to lie on the floor until I stopped seeing spots. The experience of going from .3 miles to 26.2 miles taught me that my physiological response at any one moment is just a snapshot. I'm 41. I don't think there is any chronological age that is scientifically proven to cause inescapable physical changes. If I'm disciplined enough and if I've decided to change something about my body, I can, as long as I repeat it enough times. I ran hundreds of miles in tiny increments before I could run a full marathon. Likewise, overcoming my intense dread of public speaking has required numerous one- and five-minute speeches in front of an audience. At least I know my legs can handle it, even if they pretend they can't for a while. The dread is nothing more than a physical sensation that can be beaten into submission. I'm confident that I can rewire any physical trait of my body within four years. Just because my legs are shaking doesn't mean I get to quit.
Everything turned around for me when I read that if you're nervous about a speech, it's because you're thinking about yourself instead of your audience. The message is what's important, not the messenger. If it deserves to be said, then it deserves to be heard. If there is a story inside you that needs to get out, then you have a responsibility to deliver that information and make sure it's received. If you don't have anything to say, then you can let yourself off the hook. A speaker needs an audience. Maybe being a receptive, attentive audience member is a better role for you.
I doubt you really have nothing to say, though. Is that how you're going to live your life, sitting passively and watching others do interesting things? At least that isn't as bad as scaring yourself into inaction, convincing yourself you're no good at anything and never trying the things that grab your attention. If you're scared of it, you're focusing on it, and if you're focusing on it, you must have a reason. What is that inner desire? What would you say if you knew you had the inner fire, the gift of confident public speaking?
What has helped me the most in overcoming my anxiety is to capitalize on my strengths. I knew I could write a good speech. I knew I was a good teacher in small settings. I started to think of myself not as "giving a speech" or "speaking at a podium" but as "teaching a class." I realized that I'm good at memorizing, and that knowing my material gave me more confidence. I got a lot of unexpected validation that I was a good storyteller, and that people thought I was funny. Funny, me? Really? The more the audience responded to my stories, the more they laughed, the more I started to believe them. I started emphasizing humor and finding more opportunities for jokes in my speeches. A new guest told me, out of the blue, that he thought I could do an audiobook.
It has also helped to learn that everyone in my public speaking club has a different issue. My biggest issue besides anxiety is volume. People couldn't always hear me in the back. Other speakers have trouble with the time limit, wanting to stay up there past the 7-minute warning. Some have trouble organizing their thoughts. Some are non-native speakers. Some gesticulate too much or leave their hands hanging by their sides. A couple of people are trying to beat a clicking or smacking sound they tend to make. A monotone voice is another common problem. Everyone has something, and each is a tough issue in its own way. We simply keep trying, keep listening to our evaluations, and keep striving to improve. We do improve.
My ritual is this. I leave our weekly meeting, go to the public library, and write my next speech. A 5-7 minute speech is roughly 1000 words, depending on how fast you talk. I put it away for a few days, and then I revise it the night before. I wake up in the morning, and I spend about half an hour memorizing the speech. I recite it slowly, pausing as long as I need to between sentences before I recall the next line. Then I repeat it to myself over and over again while I do my housework, shower, get ready, and walk to the meeting. When I feel nervous, I smack my belly directly on my navel. If it's really bad, I give myself a pep talk, out loud. I remind myself that it's only 5-7 minutes of my life. Even if this speech is a disaster, it's not asking that much of the audience, who will quickly move on and pay attention to the speaker after me. The worse I do, the more relieved they'll be that it's me up there and not them. In reality, though, my feeling of nervousness has nothing to do with my actual performance. Everyone gets nervous. Nobody cares but me. I remind myself to return my focus to my material, and how I've created it as a gift to the audience. The message, not the messenger.
Public speaking has become, for me, a really fun hobby and a social outlet. I look forward to meetings instead of dreading them. I love making people laugh. I'm astonished at how quickly I was able to progress from knee-rattling dread to real enjoyment. It is my hope that my experience will be helpful to anyone who is tired of being afraid and who wants to learn to speak fearlessly. It can be done. Go out there and do it, and cross off one more thing that you won't allow to frighten you anymore.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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