Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking

If I hadn’t have done that, my whole life would’ve been different – Warren Buffett on completing the Dale Carnegie Course in developing the ability to speak in public*

It was one of the first presentations I had to give at university, the specifics I’ve forgotten but I remember individually we had to get up in front of the class and present our work.  I had never done presentations before, so I had very little experience.

I remember feeling nervous, having the usual worries like will it be good enough?  Will I get a good grade?  But I don’t remember thinking about the act of getting up and speaking.  Everyone had to do it, we were all in the same boat, so to speak.

I don’t remember really listening to what they were saying…

The presentation day arrived.  I remember watching my peers to see if they were nervous, to see if they made eye contact, that sort of thing (I was probably more interested in their clothes, shoes,  hair because–let’s face it–I’m only human).  They made it look so easy.

It was my turn.  I was so nervous and I remember being envious of the people who were done, they were so lucky, they got to just sit and watch now. (Even as I write this, I have butterflies in my stomach) I took my position, front and centre and looked up.

Pins and needles were rising up and down my back, I got really hot, then cold.  I felt sick to my stomach, I could feel my face go bright red and burning hot, my heart beat was through the roof which made it hard to speak and I was visibly shaking.  What the @&3! is going on?

My mind went blank as I stumbled through my lines, I don’t even remember what I was presenting.  All I can remember is the way I felt and when  it was over (after skipping about 6 cards, most of my presentation–because I wanted it to be over) telling myself I am never going to put myself through that again, EVER!  I don’t care if I pass, nothing is worth feeling like that.

I am never going to put myself through that again

If you have ever experienced a panic attack you can relate to what happened to me.  If you haven’t, you might feel sorry for me but you will never really understand how it feels.

It’s been 20 years since that presentation and I can safely say I have avoided public speaking since then.  When I say avoided, let me just put this into perspective for you; I have faked illness to get out of speaking, left the room by perfectly timing when it would be my turn to speak.  I’ve deflected to colleagues, friends and family members.  To my utter disappointment, I’ve become very skillful at this.

I am an expert at manoeuvring my way through life avoiding public speaking

Here’s the problem, it stays with you.  Like any fear, unless you face it and overcome it to the best of your ability it never goes away.  Worst of all, over time it gets bigger.  What could have been a minor bump in the road to overcome has become this huge hurdle.

Fear is not a bad thing, it keeps you safe and stops you doing dangerous things.   I am quite fond of fear coming along with me, most of the time.  I know it has my best interests are heart.  But when fear starts to make decisions for me–decisions like saying ‘No’ to opportunities and experiences that are not going to kill me, decisions that could have a negative effect on me long term–there lies the problem.

Tired of avoiding and being afraid of public speaking

I know if I had nipped it in the bud early, like when the panic first happened, during my university days, I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to speak at my own wedding, my sister’s wedding and share my ideas and opinions at work. (On that note, friends and family have always been really supportive and sweet–and trust me when I say, it doesn’t help–I feel like I am letting nobody down except myself).

I am writing this post now, for you, in case you can relate.  If you are avoiding presentations and public speaking blissfully unaware of how this will affect you later on, I want to help you and in the process help me.  There WILL be times in your professional life when being able to comfortably address a group of people is required.  In a follow up post I will share exactly how often public speaking is required in different roles in the Food & Beverage Industry, just how many positions and how frequently may surprise you.

I have spoken to many people who suffer with the same fears about public speaking. You’d be amazed how many senior people in organizations suffer with anxiety related to this, and its an ongoing battle because its part of their job.  Speaking one-on-one, at trade-shows, networking, workshops, answering questions–you name any other situation where speaking passionately to convey my message is required–I thoroughly enjoy and invite (and thankfully is what I do 99.9% of the time).

Do it now, develop the skill of speaking publicly

Are you in?  Lets do it together, you are never too young or too old to develop new skills.  What’s surprising is how common this is.  I thought everyone had this figured out except me, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Have you lived with fear of public speaking in your career and life in general?  Sharing stories and allowing students and grads to hear first hand how important this is to overcome is helpful, no matter what point in your career.  Please leave a comment or email me.

NOTE: Since writing this post, I have made progress.  I stopped saying no to all public speaking opportunities and believe it or not, survived them!  Practice does help.  It’s scary as hell, but it’s worth it.

*Warren Buffett quote is from the Becoming Warren Buffett HBO Documentary

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