Public speaking is one of my greatest fears. Sparring with a guy twice my size in krav maga is less scary to me than speaking to a group of peers.
It’s not like I don’t have the experience. I’ve given dozens of presentations. But I can count on one two-fingered hand the number of times I was successful. Once when I was too distracted by a bout of food poisoning to be nervous, and the other when I had only three slides, which I had memorized. Every other time, I felt unconfident and anxious. And my audience looked as uncomfortable as I felt.
So when I was asked twice in the span of two months to speak publicly, I wanted to die. (Like educator and Unsplash CEO Mikael Cho says, at least when you’re dead, you feel nothing.) One was an 80-page training presentation for work and the other, a five-minute toast at my brother’s wedding. Two very different speeches that filled me with equal amounts of anxiety.
But short of quitting my job or disappointing my bro and future sister-in-law, I couldn’t get out of either. I had to figure out a way to get through them. Here’s what I did.
l let myself be nervous
You know the feeling. Racing heart, sweaty palms, upset stomach. Someone who has no such fear might say that of public speaking isn’t real. Your life isn’t really in danger. Focus on combatting those biological responses. Breathe deeply. Slow your heart. Relax your stomach.
Easier said than done.
Trying to meditate has never done anything to make me more prepared. It made me only more aware of how nervous I was, and how I wasn’t getting any less nervous. According to Cho, some people are simply wired to feel more nervous about performing. Since stage fright is “natural and inevitable,” you should focus on what you can control, namely ...
Practice, practice, practice
When I told (read: complained) to a friend about having to give a presentation at work, he said three deceptively simple words: “Practice makes perfect.”
Duh, right? But until then I hadn’t realized I feared public speaking so much, I avoided practicing until the last minute. Then when I’d do not-great, I’d chalk it up to my lack of skills and the inherent horribleness of presenting.
When I was a kid, I performed in piano recitals every year. Not just performed: performed long and complicated pieces from memory. In 11 years of recitals, I screwed up only once. Why? I practiced. I mean A LOT. Every day. For MONTHS. So why should a presentation or speech be any different?
I practiced the training presentation every day, sometimes twice a day, for weeks. When I felt anxious, I practiced. When I had a free hour, I practiced. The same went for my wedding speech. I practiced it in the shower, during my walk to work, when I cooked dinner. (Later I’d find out my father did the same while walking on the treadmill.)
I practiced until I knew my speeches like a piece of Beethoven I still remember to this day.
I practiced with people
Cho also suggests practicing in an environment similar to the real deal. In other words, with people.
When my boss offered to go over my presentation with me, I was reluctant at first. After all, public speaking! With people! But I forced myself to say yes, and I’m so glad I did.
First, it forced me to get in some practice beforehand. Second, she had given the training several times and so had keen insights and advice. Third, she was extremely encouraging, assuring me that reading — if I did so slowly and deliberately — was fine due to the denseness and number of slides and since most people would be listening via conference call.
I also practiced with friends. One had done Toastmasters, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people develop their public speaking skills, so I asked her for some tips and tricks. She did one better and offered to go over the training presentation with me live.
Since we lived in different cities, we used Skype, which was no less effective. Not only was she ready to give me a critique on my speaking style, she wanted to understand the presentation. I mean, really understand it. She asked questions and had me go over certain slides again and again. As a result, I understood those slides better too.
I also practiced my wedding toast with this friend and another, who advised me to memorize it. I didn’t want to at first, but again I’m glad I did. The result was funnier, more natural, and more moving.
I began to associate positive feelings with public speaking
Dog whisperer Cesar Millan has trained dogs anxious about grooming into actually enjoying the process. He introduces a relaxing massage, then associates the grooming tools with the massage. Hence, a pup who really loves a haircut.
The friend I practiced with over Skype is someone I’ve known almost all my life. She’s one of the most nonjudgmental people I know, and therefore someone I feel extremely comfortable with. After practicing my presentation with her, I began to associate the positive feelings I have for my friend with the presentation itself. I actually began to enjoy presenting.
So how’d it go?
After a nervous start, I settled into the words I knew so well. After my presentation, my boss told me she was “extremely impressed,” and during my toast, people laughed in the right places and even applauded. My sister-in-law cried, and I did not die.
As Cho says, stage fright isn’t something to overcome but to adapt to. My fear isn’t gone. It’ll still be there the next time I have to give a speech or presentation. But at least I know now what to do to manage it, and without a bout of food poisoning.