A lot of people struggle with a fear of public speaking. I certainly did. I recall working as a programmer in Belgium in the late nineties. A week after an error occurred on one of my systems, our client liaison asked me to join a customer meeting. He simply wanted "someone technical" in the room in case the error came up. I obliged, picturing a meeting with one customer. As luck would have it, the meeting included about a dozen customer representatives and a few internal team members. It may as well have been 1,000 people. I was immediately scared at the prospect of having to speak up. For the duration of the meeting, I simply sat and hoped that my contributions would not be needed. Although I was well prepared to speak to the error in question, I was completely ill-equipped to speak to a group of people. When I was finally called upon I tripped over my own words, became flush-red with nervousness and delivered the least comprehensive contribution possible. It was a disaster.
Fast forward ten years. I find myself lying awake with a presentation to over 100 people scheduled for the next day. Only this time, it wasn't nerves occupying my mind, it was excitement. I literally couldn't wait to present - It was a monthly town-hall presentation I was scheduled to give to my teams. I had a story I was excited to share, metrics I was proud to communicate, and individuals I was pleased to publicly recognize for their amazing accomplishments. The meeting went great; the presentation to over 100 people may as well have been a conversation with an old friend. It was that comfortable.
So how did I make the journey between these two scenarios? Simple. My fear of public speaking became a test for how much I wanted to progress in my field. If I wanted to move forward I needed to conquer it. I had overcome other obstacles in life, so why should this be any different. Lots of people do it, so why couldn't I? If I wasn't willing to address this fear, could I really say that I was 'truly' ambitious?
There were people I wanted to make proud, but this was something I felt truly motivated internally to address myself. I started by finding a safe place to fail. For me, that was my local toastmasters chapter. There I managed to deliver a string of terrible speeches week after week. The first one was terrifying. The second one, slightly less so. As time passed, practice led to incremental increases in my confidence. At the same time, I saw other people speak and consciously analyzed what worked well and what didn't. I noticed that the best speakers spoke from the heart, not from a script. Engaging speakers told relatable stories, as opposed to delivering cold presentations. Over time, I found myself focusing less on my fear of failure and more on my potential to mirror the speakers I admired. Eventually, with practice and experience, I found my own voice.
I'd love to tell you that there's a quick way to address this. There's not. I tried hypnosis (seriously) and other tactics to take short-cuts. The one trick? You really just have to dive in. Fail early and fail often. Find a safe place to practice - either with a local speaking club or with people you trust at home, at work or at your local church. The great news is that most people watching you speak really want you to succeed. You can overcome your fear, and better still, you can perfect your ability to speak in public by finding YOUR voice.