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Public Speaking

I must disclose that I have not conquered or overcome or gotten over my nerves for public speaking. I believe no public speaker ever does. Ask any professional speaker and they’ll tell you that they still tremble before a new crowd. Ask any serial entrepreneur and they’ll tell you they still feel nervous before a pitch. Hesitations will always be there. We just learn to manage them in a better and quicker way.

How do we do this?

1. Dispel your worst case scenario.
Fear is all about not knowing what to expect. In the vacuum of the unknown, our minds fill it with the worst possible scenario. It is this scenario that is at the basis of our fears.

Take public speaking. The scenario most people are afraid of is being utterly embarrassed. Having the audience, or the person you’re pitching to, laugh in your face. Or worse, laugh about you to someone else’s face. We’re afraid of ruining our reputation, taking an ego hit, and worst of all, having to stand there and experience this drawn-out shredding and ultimate death of both our reputation and ego. Pretty scary, right?

Not so much. Not when you realise that the possibility of this scenario ever happening is close to zero. Why? Because you’ll be prepared. Because that audience and that investor would have stood in your position before, so they understand and forgive your misgivings. Because they’ll be too busy admiring you for doing something that most people don’t. Because, honestly, they don’t have the time to nitpick apart all the things you did wrong afterwards. You’re just not worth their time for this. Because watching someone conquer their fear is inspiring, it commands respect.

Once you dispel your worst case scenario, doing the task becomes a lot less scary.

2. Recognise your pattern of fear.
Recognise the hesitation in your mind. Realise that overcoming this is something that is important to you. Identify the first step and take it. This will be the only, and most, difficult part. But like pulling off a bandaid, you just do it. Watch as you start to realise that this is not as bad as you thought. Watch as your worst case scenario doesn’t play out. Watch as you feel excitement and exhilaration. When it’s over, a part of you wants to do it again. So you do it again.

This is the pattern of how fears play out. Notice how it’s only uncomfortable in the first part? Notice how it’s brief? Fear has a bad case of the small-dog-barks-the-loudest syndrome.

3. Take your first step.
My first step into public speaking started when I signed up for my university’s debating club, the Monash Association of Debaters. When I was asked to get up and debate on my first meeting there, that was when I took my first step.

What made me take this first step? Honestly, because I had no other alternative. I had no way out. I couldn’t say no. So I gritted my teeth, bit the bullet and decided to make the most of the opportunity before me. But that’s just half of the story. Because the other half is that I put myself in a position where I couldn’t back out. I signed up for the club. I went along to the meeting. I didn’t leave when they said, “right, we’re all going to debate now.”

This is the easiest way of taking your first step. Put yourself in a position where you may have to face your fear but where you can’t back out if you do.

3. Be prepared.
Always be prepared because past preparation is what gets the clockwheels moving after you take that first step.

To prepare for public speaking, I watched hours of YouTube videos on top speakers and modeled off them. I practised in front of the mirror so much that it became my best friend (during this time, I took long “bathroom breaks” where you would hear me talking to myself through the door, slightly weird for my housemates). I absorbed information from news sources, websites, videos and people. And I signed my name up to as many debates as I could.

Last week, I went to Toastmasters where a woman gave an amazing speech about the Sochi Winter Olympics. It blew everyone in the room away and she won best speaker for that evening. I assumed she had been doing this for a long time. That she was no stranger to public speaking. That she had been speaking professionally. But it turned out that she had only been speaking for a few months. So what was her secret? She practised her speech 27 times in the past two weeks. She was prepared.

Being prepared means research, practise, practising some more and then practising some more after that. You only get out as much as you put in.

4. Manage your fear.
The last trick is to learn to manage your fear. Managing means learning to ignore your body’s natural fear responses, learning to keep your nerves at an optimal level (yes, there is an optimal level for nervousness), and arriving at a mentality where you believe you are a public speaker, or you are a charismatic presenter.

You’ve learnt to manage a fear when you can do this without having to spend too much effort on consciously telling yourself to do this.

Unfortunately, the only way is to repeat steps one to three until you feel comfortable. In other words, face as many fears, or face the same fear as many times, as you possibly can.

Fortunately, this happens a lot faster than you realise. I became comfortable with public speaking after my third week of debating. And while I still feel nervous before a speech, I have conquered my fear of speaking in front of a crowd, and with it, my fear of facing fears. You’ll find that they’re often the same thing.

Ultimately, fears are an acquired taste. Remember when you first tasted coffee? Remember how it was absolutely disgusting and you never wanted to try it again? Now you drink it all the time. Fears are like this. They’re horrible at the start. But the more you face them the more acquired your mind and body becomes, and after a while, facing a fear becomes common place — and dare I say it, addictive.