At 7 years old, I felt so terrified when doing a ‘weather forecast’ at school, I nervously farted in front of my class. At 26, I froze during a 3-minute presentation whilst on a ‘Projecting Professional Confidence’ workshop; feeling unable to finish I ran back to my seat and held back tears as my body shook from fear and shame.
For 20-odd years I panicked my way through presentations; avoiding eye contact with teachers to not get picked; wishing that time would run out so I could magically be saved by the bell; and avoiding preparing before-hand – thinking that if I ignored it, it might somehow not actually happen.
I would speak as fast as I could to get it over and done with, say “umm” more than any other word, or open my mouth for nothing but silence to fill the room. Presentations came with wobbly legs, a racing heart, sweating back and fear that it would reveal how flawed I thought I was.
How many of us feel this way?
Feeling anxious about doing a presentation in school, pitching an idea at work, talking in a team meeting, or speaking out about a cause you believe in is a common experience for many of us. According to a YouGov survey carried out in 2014, Public Speaking emerged as the UK’s 2nd biggest fear, with over 55% of participants feeling fearful when it comes to speaking up. That’s more than half of us!
I wasn’t always aware of this myself. I spent most of those 20-odd years feeling like I was alone in those challenges; oblivious to the many others feeling similar to how I was. Imagine how many people around you right now might also be experiencing the feelings that you are? It could be more than you think.
From avoiding to practising
It might surprise you to know (because it still surprises me sometimes!) that public speaking is now an essential and frequent part of my work. I’ve spoken to rooms of over 100 people on a number of occasions; to students at Universities; on BBC Spotlight and numerous radio interviews, I regularly deliver workshops, and most recently, I spoke at an event for 40 minutes, sharing stories which brought the room to tears.
Yes, younger me would not have seen that in my future, nor would have she felt it was possible. In those moments of surprise and disbelief, when I wonder “Who is this person doing these things?” I remind myself that I am not here due to a ‘natural comfort’ in the spotlight, or because I am now ‘fearless’ and ‘just do it’.
I am able to be in these positions because I slowly stretched my comfort zone, practised techniques to manage the anxieties, challenged the limiting self-beliefs that held me back, and because I reframe every speaking experience as an opportunity to learn and practise some more.
An impactful moment along this journey came 3 years ago – a couple of months after the 3-minute presentation that I ran away from – I recorded myself practising to a group in a safe space, with others who also felt anxious about public speakng. When I watched the video back 2 days later, I learnt some beneficial lessons, that you may find helpful too…
Presentation practise, 2017. Audio has been muted to highlight body language and demonstrate how I presented.
1. Your perception of yourself might be different from what others are seeing
One of the first things I recognised when watching this video back was that I didn’t appear as nervous as I was actually feeling; how I felt internally, wasn’t expressed to the same extent externally. Viewing myself from this different perspective highlighted that others’ experience of what was being presented might be significantly different from what we think they are experiencing (we do naturally make up stories after all).
Additionally, I saw moments of lighthearted playfulness being expressed that felt more aligned with who I authentically am. What else might someone else see in you that you have been missing?
2. Your perception of others might not be what they are experiencing
Likewise, what we see in others when they are presenting may not be the full story of their internal experience. Part of the reason why I so strongly believed that nobody else experienced the same amount of anxiety that I did when it came to public speaking was that I was only seeing part of their picture. Whilst I may have seen what looked like confidence in others, that doesn’t mean that was always true for them.
It’s easy for us to view people in a better light than what we put ourselves in – it’s highly likely that they are doing the same for you too.
3. It’s okay to show nerves
Whilst I was surprised to notice that I didn’t appear as anxious as I felt, there were visible moments where I started to freeze and needed to take deep breaths to continue. I realised that it was more than okay to show those moments, and for others to see it too because it was natural, it was human. It’s not unusual for that to still happen today – the difference now is that I no longer feel ashamed about it, and so it’s much easier to give myself the time I need to breathe, recenter, and go on.
I recognised that I wouldn’t judge others harshly for showing nerves and that I could extend the same kindness to myself, and so can you.
4. You are capable of more than you know
I grew up believing that I should be able to do something perfectly straight away, or at least within a few times of doing it; the concept of learning hadn’t quite sunk in for me and making mistakes felt unacceptable. I wanted to be seen as perfect, capable and competent, and my inner critic told me that anything less than that meant that I was worthless. Public speaking seemed like another way in which I would prove that the latter was true for me because I thought that I was incapable of delivering a perfect presentation, with perfect knowledge and understanding.
Viewing myself from a different perspective, seeing qualities expressed that felt like me, recognising that others feel anxious too, and accepting that was okay, challenged that inner critic. It offered evidence that something else could be true instead. It relieved some of the shame I felt, which in turn, reduced the anxiety.
When I watched my video, I witnessed courage, and a person that was willing to keep trying, and have a go. I saw evidence that I don’t “always give up”, that I wasn’t “a failure”, or “incapable of doing anything”. I didn’t see perfection, I saw something much, much better – I saw a human.
What are you believing to be true about yourself? What is your inner critic telling you? What could be true instead? Where can you look for new evidence?
Public speaking is a skill that we can all learn with gradual practise. What we believe about ourselves can change when we start to question “What else?” , look for alternative evidence, and do something different.