How Do You Feel About Speaking in Public?

 How do you feel about speaking in public? Are you at ease when asked to present a talk, a PowerPoint presentation or report? Are you confident when speaking in a group setting, whether around a conference table, in a Board room or at the PTA? If your answer is “NOT comfortable at ALL,” I can relate, as can many of my Mentoring clients who have shared their trepidation at being the center of attention, all eyes on them while trying to keep their thoughts and voice in control. I recall the day I confronted my fear as if it were yesterday.

“Lesa, if you could be an animal, what would it be?”

Oh my God he called on me.

It was a Friday morning in 1986 at 7:30, in a meeting room of a small hotel on La Jolla Village Drive. I was dressed in a Kelly green knit dress with matching duster, to which, given it was the Eighties, I of course added large shoulder pads. My hair was layered into a short curly cut with a level of poof also emblematic of the time. I was the guest of my friend Diane who had been attending meetings of this Toastmasters club every week for almost a year now.

I knew what I was supposed to do because at the beginning of the meeting, the Toastmaster-of-the-Week went over the rules, rather eagerly, I might add. I was to stand and respond. And try not to say “Um” or I’d get “dinged” and owe a nickel.

A cold terror took over me as I slowly rose from my seat. As all eyes turned to me, awaiting my reply, my face started to color. Oh no! It’s happening to me again! My fear of public speaking is why I’m here, but do I have to actually do some of it so soon? Why did I even put myself in this situation? What a sight I must be, all red-faced and green-bodied. Is there even a world outside of my internal misery right now? My mind is a complete blank…no, it’s not blank, it’s focused on my suffering. How red I am. And that I’m trembling. And sweating.

“Um…probably a cat…” I managed to eek out, to the sound of a “ding” by the Um Monitor. I knew I was supposed to use the word of the day, “overt,” and speak for a full minute. But that was all I had. I sank back into my chair in complete humiliation.

Diane turned to me, patted my hand and said “Listen, you don’t have to answer the question! Next time, just look at me and talk to me about whatever is on your mind and once you get going, you’ll probably find a way to use the word of the day and maybe even touch on the question. Just watch the others. You’ll see.”

Sure enough, the next victim, er, member was asked the same question, “What animal would you like to be?” He jumped up with great enthusiasm and easily ripped off a spunky, “I just can’t get over what a beautiful morning this is! I jumped out of bed and overtly ignored my cat,” as he gestured toward me, chuckling.

Great. Let’s bring attention to me again so I can do a repeat performance of turning fifty shades of red. Kind of like a reverse chameleon. It’s a miracle there’s blood left anywhere else in my body.

“But speaking of cats, I didn’t like them much until my wife brought home Sporty...” and he droned on for his minute about Sporty and his wife, never once mentioning what animal he’d like to be. 

I sat through the remainder of the meeting trying to wish myself invisible while observing the rest of “Table Topics,” the name of the spontaneous torture exercise, and the prepared speeches of five members. Some were better than others, but each person seemed pretty comfortable up there, which by my standards meant they managed to speak in coherent sentences and not faint.

By the end of the meeting I had a decision to make. I could run and never come back again. Or I could join and do something about this debilitating shyness when speaking in public. I chose the latter, and at the end of the meeting, I paid my dues and was given a Handbook. My first speech would be in two weeks. It was called “The Ice Breaker,” and the topic was on me. Myself. I exhaled just a bit thinking, I should be able to talk about myself for four minutes without throwing up.

Writing it was easy. And we were allowed to have notes, a crutch that comforted my nerves. I practiced and practiced.

“Good,” said my husband. “But maybe slow down.” He must have been so sick of my little performance, as I put him through it again and again. Once, the night before, just before we climbed into bed, I made him listen one last time. He liked it. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I was naked.

The next morning, Diane reminded me to speak only to her. I nervously waited through Table Topics and all of the other speeches. How do they do it, I wondered? How do they just stand up there and speak with so much poise and confidence? My stomach continued performing flip-flops until the moment the Toastmaster called my name. As I walked up to the front of the room, I felt the all too familiar sensation of my face warming. Sweat flooded my feet, my hands, my armpits. I felt my legs tremble. I turned around to face this group of seventy and needed the deep breath I remembered to take. Diane surreptitiously grabbed my attention with a yawn and a stretch of her arms overhead.

I began, looking straight at Diane, “I’m a Valley Girl. An honest-to-goodness, authentic Valley Girl. What does that mean? It means I can shop and chew gum at the same time.” 

They all laughed. Hmmmm…I kinda liked that. I felt an authentic smile come on which allowed me to relax some, and to take another breath. I continued with my speech, glancing at my notes only twice, and yes, I spoke too fast. When I began my speech, I kept my eyes on Diane, but as I continued, I noticed other interested faces and began to speak to them, too, but just to one of them at a time. The group of “all of them” was too much, too intimidating, too impersonal. It slowly dawned on me as I finished my speech that when I got out of my head, out of my experience, when I focused on making sure that this person got what I said, that other person got what I said, and so on, that I could speak in public without debilitating symptoms. This realization was momentous. My entire life trajectory changed in that instant. I had found the key to a kingdom I’d been locked out of. To speak in public, you have to be more interested in those out in the audience than yourself. You have to be, literally, out of your damn mind.  

I encourage all my Mentoring clients who express a fear of public speaking to join a local Toastmasters group. The program is tried and true, having been tested over decades. And the next time your name is called and all eyes are on you, remember to speak to one person at a time, and to think of them, not you—get out of your head!—and you might just find a surprising and life-changing well of inner confidence.

Lesa Heebner