public speaking

My Journey to Overcoming My Fear of Public Speaking

Do you fear talking in front of a big group? You are not alone!

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), 75% of us rank the fear of public speaking as number one. Many significant public speakers have suffered from this fear. Investor Warren Buffet, the richest man in the world in 2008, dropped out of a college speech class rather than talk in front of his peers.  Actor Carol Burnett was so nervous she vomited before many of her performances.

That was me until I lived through one of my worst nightmares. This is what happened.

Many years ago, I had the privilege of presenting at a conference of the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, held at Hilton Head, South Carolina. It was an honor to be invited to speak to these professionals at the forefront of the healing profession.

I prepared my talk and practiced drawing the significant points on a whiteboard so that people could see a graphic representation of the material. I’d picked my favorite dress to impress the audience with my professional demeanor.

I was set to impact the audience so they’d remember and appreciate the significant points I presented. It was one way of overcoming my fear of speaking in front of a professional audience. In other words, whatever you do, no matter how you feel, make sure you look good and sound accomplished.

There I was on the morning of my presentation. I’d flown in late the night before from Sacramento. I had a good night’s sleep. I’m in the speaker’s lounge having oatmeal. I’m mentally preparing for the presentation in about an hour to ensure I sound as professional as possible. I’m dressed in my old green sweats and running shoes. Hair is a mess. I haven’t brushed my teeth. However, I’m feeling great because I have time to breathe and relax before I need to get dressed.

Suddenly the doors to the lounge fling open. The coordinator of the conference calls out my name.  “Maria!” she says, looking alarmed. “You were supposed to be downstairs at your presentation ten minutes ago!”

I had set my watch to the wrong time!

Two words escape my mouth. They start with the letters o and s.

Heart racing, I rush from the room to the elevator, realizing there’s no time to get dressed.  I look awful. And I don’t have my notes.

I jump into the elevator. I want to escape this episode. I want to pretend this never happened. But no one would ever ask me to present something to a professional audience again. My reputation would be ruined.

I will never forget this moment. I could feel myself calming as I looked at how I could contribute to the people I was about to meet. Instead of worrying, I decided to focus on the best way forward. I thought about how to use my misfortune to illustrate the hero’s journey, which was the subject of my talk.

I entered the lecture hall. About two hundred people were there, and they were unhappy because I was almost twenty minutes late. I walked up the center aisle, and they didn’t know I was the speaker because I looked disheveled.

The subject of this talk covered all the obstacles that meet up with us while we’re on our own hero’s journey.  And now I’m living it. I step up onto the stage, and while I’m being fitted with the microphone, I turn to the people and ask them:

“Have you ever had a nightmare in which you were supposed to be giving a presentation, and you got the wrong time and wound up in front of a big group of people, both late and looking terrible?”

There was a pause. Then everyone started to laugh. I asked them to support me by visualizing the gorgeous black and purple outfit I would wear to impress them. We all laughed some more.

I launched into the presentation on the obstacles we encounter as heroes in our lives. Everyone was engaged, and soon they asked questions and offered their experiences with similar unforeseen moments.

This is what I learned:

  • No matter how much you try to prepare your presentation,  you will always meet up with these unforeseen moments.
  • You have a choice: to curl up with terror and self-recrimination or to discover the best way forward.
  • The best way forward, primarily when tasked with presenting something to a group of people, is to focus on how you can contribute to them.

The easiest way to contribute to people who are there to receive something from you is to follow this simple principle:

Instead of what you need to say, focus on what they need to hear.

For example, you may have the points you want to make in your presentation. However, before starting, look out at the folks who are there. Ask yourself: “What do they need to hear from me right now?”

It’s like a brief meditation in which you take a deep breath as you look out at them. If you do this, you’ll see something because that question causes your heart rate to slow down enough for you to think creatively. And people are very observant: they can tell if you’re focusing on yourself instead of on them.

In my case, what I saw as I looked at the people gathered at NICABM was a group that needed me to say something personal about my situation. Maybe even vulnerable. Even humorous.

A word about being vulnerable: always seek to include them in the experience.  For example, I learned that day that instead of saying:

“This is a nightmare for me,”  I said:  “Have you ever had a nightmare?

That shift alone brings them in on the situation’s joke, dilemma, or traumatic nature.

When your attention is on the group, they’ll reward you with their attention. And, once again, with your attention on them, you’ll discover you aren’t so afraid of public speaking after all!

I hadn’t learned about that shift until that very morning. But haven’t you ever noticed that extreme situations have brought out your creativity when you focus on contribution?

The conclusion? After that presentation was finished, a group of women stayed behind and asked me the following question:

“You really planned it to happen this way, didn’t you?”

Until next week, take care!

  • Tanya Newbould
    Posted at 13:50h, 26 May Reply

    I actually got goosebumps reading this as I could feel the terror that I know I would experience if my name were called and that happened. I love that when we turn the focus to what is needed by others versus what we need, all is well. Tana Newbould

  • Jani McCarty
    Posted at 14:05h, 26 May Reply

    I love this story Maria.💜
    This is Life! Yes, always Life is present to offer us these unforeseen moments.
    Thank you for the reminder – we always have a choice – to step forward in courage & trust – or recoil & escape into fear!

    And – it is always a choice to be present when I focus on what can it is that I can contribute to others.

    With gratitude for you and your wisdom,
    Jani 🌿🦋💜

  • Susan Koenig
    Posted at 15:23h, 30 May Reply

    Such a powerful story, Maria! Your coaching on the power of focus made it possible for me to make a quick shift at a national speaking event when—less than an hour before I was to take the stage in a ballroom full of people—I realized I hadn’t packed my well-selected outfit. The question I managed to call forth was “How many of you arrived here having forgotten to pack something you intended to bring?” I was able to share my story and we all shared a laugh. I owe that success to you your brilliant coaching!

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