Have you ever had something you are deathly afraid of doing? A thing that just thinking about it makes you sweat, shake and maybe even throw up because you are so nervous? That is how I feel (felt) about public speaking. Now I know that this is not a novelty. Many people I know (if not most), have some level of anxiety when it comes to speaking in public. However then there are others like myself who actually can get themselves worked up into such a panic, that it can interfere with the task itself.
I have always been like this but I have found throughout the years that certain situations are worse than others. For example, I taught classes to nursing assistants when I worked as a nurse at a hospital. I didn’t particularly like it, but felt that it was important for career development to do it. I did find that teaching the classes was not as difficult as giving a lecture because the environment was informal. I got to sit at a table with the students and I also had another nurse teaching the class with me. I felt like I was less in the spotlight this way.
I think I am a relatively social person, especially compared to when I was younger because I was unbelievably shy. I do pretty good one on one with people, even strangers. I can hold my own speaking in a group (strangers or not) because the focus is not on me. But put me all by myself in front of a crowd and I panic. If I know the people I am speaking in front of, it is a little easier but still causes me to freak out inside. I have figured out over the past few weeks what my big issue is. I feel self-conscious when all eyes are on me. Give me a podium with an audience and it is all over.
Today I am finishing up a six week writing workshop. Part of this workshop was an opportunity to read a piece of creative writing for a public reading. We were told that it wasn’t mandatory to do this reading so I easily had a way out of this potential disaster. However I had been working quite hard on a short story over the course of the workshop and it was really one of the first opportunities I would get to have objective people hear my writing. So I decided I was going to do it.
I wrote my story and revised it (with great input from my teacher) at least 7-8 times. I loved it. I know it was not the stuff they give Pulitzer Prizes for, but it was my creation and I was proud of it. I had been having some significant breathing difficulties because of my asthma and some new found vocal cord issues so I was even more concerned about how I was going to pull this off. I worked with my speech therapist around reading the story out loud, especially because it meant ten minutes of speech. I also hit those home speech exercises pretty hard.
I tackled the speaking anxiety issues by reading and rereading the story more times than I could count so that I knew the story well and actually felt like I was part of it. My minister had a great suggestion to practice reading it in our church where there is a large room with a podium. Even though there was not an audience there, I found it extremely helpful just getting comfortable standing in front of a room. My writing teacher also had some great suggestions about preparing for the reading in order to reduce anxiety. We reviewed how to present ourselves at the podium in front of the audience in order to reduce anxiety and also to be more effective as a speaker.
Last night I read my short story in a room of about 20-25 people. I had mentally prepared myself for hours before the event. I have personally found that for me, anxiety over public speaking (or anything really) tends to be a fueling the fire type of thing. I get nervous and then worry about how nervous I am. Then I imagine how many thing can go wrong and how uncomfortable I am going to be. Yesterday, I instead talked myself out of the anxiety. I told myself that it was a good story and I reminded myself how it important it was for me to take ownership of the story; to present it in a confident way so that other people might appreciate it. Then I made sure I wore something decent and put some effort into my hair and makeup to help in the self-confidence department!
So what was the end result? I was pretty calm right up until I had to go up to the podium (I was the first speaker which was a blessing really). I started to get a little panicky. Then I remembered all the breathing techniques I had learned from the therapist. I reminded myself to speak slowly and clearly, especially because I normally speak very fast. I reminded myself that people wanted to hear what I had to say. When I looked out at the people in the room, I took a deep breath and just read. I lost myself in my story and it was wonderful. I would even go as far as saying that it was fun! Most importantly though, I realized that after 39 years of having a public speaking phobia, I realized that last night, my fear was finally conquered.