How I made peace with my public speaking phobia...sort of
Public speaking has never, ever been something that I enjoyed. It’s only been a fairly recent phenomena now that before I talk, I don’t feel like I’m going to die or explode, or die from an explosion, in front of my unsuspecting audience. Although the fear of public speaking is the most common phobia for people everywhere, in a world of extroverts being afraid of speaking up can be seen as being weird or antisocial.
When I was in school, usually the day before a presentation was expected I would become “ill” and stay home to avoid standing in front of my peers. As I grew older, and still expected to present projects and ideas in university, I would still have this feeling of needing to run as fast as my legs would carry me to the large red exit sign. By that time though, I forced myself to resist that urge and present what I could in the most mumbled, muffled way, with plenty of “Ummmms” and “YouknowwhatImeans.” Shout out to my former professors for willingly subjecting yourself to that torture.
Fast forward to when I decided to embark on my career as a designer - I thought I was safe. Gone were the days of presentations to a large crowd of expectant eyes along with that horrifying feeling of drowning. Now I would be protected by my large iMac screen and its illuminative glow and the only humans I’d need to talk to every now and then would be an equally antisocial engineer.
As I gained more and more experience in design, I was obviously expected to talk to larger and larger crowds. And each time this was happening, I would run to the bathroom beforehand and try to run through every calming method I’d read about to prevent myself from dying, er, panicking.
The episodes kept coming as long as the presentations were scheduled. I would start out with my heart pounding, my mouth going dry, and my face feeling as if someone had just thrown their hot tea all over me. It was awful, and I was a mess. I was also beginning to think it really was just me that was experiencing this debilitating feeling and that everyone else was way more competent than me. I even started to look up careers that didn’t involve presenting to people, which was pretty limited - although at my most depressive point, being a cemetery groundskeeper was suddenly a lot more appealing.
When I would explain how I felt to my friends and family, they’d say “You’re probably not that bad, don’t worry” and pat me on the back as if I would toddle away and forget about this ridiculous problem. To many people, feeling this way about public speaking seems silly and doesn’t make any sense - but for me, it had become a very real and very cumbersome phobia that was preventing me from performing my best at work.
As I became tired of going through this vicious cycle for so many years, I suddenly started to care a lot less if I wasn’t as eloquent as the person beside me or as engaging as Steve Jobs. So far I hadn't died from talking (yet). And while being able to communicate an idea is very important for what I do, if I stutter or stammer while doing it at least I’m trying. I still struggle to pace myself when I get too excited about an idea, and the overwhelming anxiety is always there before I talk to a group (even Zoom groups!). Nowadays though, since I haven’t spontaneously combusted yet over a presentation gone wrong, I’m a little bit more okay with talking than I used to be.
I also write out everything that I want to say, say it aloud, and then keep practising until it sounds a lot less scripted and more natural. I *might* even record myself sometimes before a big talk and play it back to see if I’m getting the point across without sounding too goofy.
Sharing this isn’t easy for me because for a long time I thought admitting this openly made me look weak or unreliable. However, I know there are probably a fair few out there that are going through what I experience, so I wanted to put this out there to let you all know that you definitely can at least make peace with this frustrating phobia.