Is there a task or activity you used to do, and know you need to return to doing, but still manage to come up with all sorts of excuses not to? Something you’ve deliberately been avoiding…perhaps even dreading?
For me, it was public speaking.
Despite delivering dozens of presentations over the years, standing in front of a room full of people was never something I was comfortable doing, let alone found enjoyment in. It was, however, an activity I was reasonably good at—and one I suspected was important. I just wasn’t entirely sure why.
A few years ago, I reached a point where my anxiety about an upcoming presentation became an issue. I would get nervous weeks in advance and that anxiety, not surprisingly, spilled over into other aspects of my life. The date of an upcoming presentation loomed like a shadow over my days—and the closer I got to presentation-day, the stronger the sense of dread. By the time the actual date arrived, I was a bundle of nerves.
Clearly, if I was going to continue public speaking, something would have to change.
The first step was obvious: stop delivering presentations. So I did. I instead focused my energies on writing, my company and enjoying the time I had left with my elderly dog. During this time, I also came across Simon Sinok’s outstanding book, Start With Why.
After reading the book, I asked myself: why was it important that I resume delivering presentations?
My answer was threefold:
#1. Because the workplace safety message I was delivering could save a life.
#2. Because the personal nature of my story evokes an emotional response with people, thereby increasing the potential for an actual change in behaviour.
#3. Because communicating via the spoken word often reaches an entirely different audience than the written word.
Fair enough. But I think I’d known all that before—and in the long run, it hadn’t been enough to ease my anxiety as a public speaker. I then sought out the advice of Brian Willis, founder of Winning Mind Training and himself an outstanding professional public speaker.
“Here’s the deal,” Brian explained, referring in part to Nancy Duarte’s Harvard Business Review Guide to Persuasive Presentations: “the person presenting is not the hero in the room. The hero is the audience. It is up to the people hearing the presentation who will determine whether or not they’ll actually take the messages they’ve heard and implemented them in their own lives in some way. That’s what determines whether a speaker is effective or not. Unfortunately, many speakers never figure this out. They think it’s all about them.”
Upon hearing this, I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I realized that when I did get back to public speaking, I didn’t have to be perfect. I just had to do my job as a presenter and reach the audience in a way that had the best chance of inspiring them to take action.
But how best to do this, without being a nervous wreck, living in dread of the next presentation?
Well, when the time came for me to prepare for delivering my first presentation after a year’s hiatus, I turned to another piece of advice by Brian Willis: practice, practice, practice.
The purpose of this strategy, Brian had explained, is to train the mind so that it knows the story. So when I’m up in front of the audience, I’m not trying to remember what comes next because I’ve already pre-programmed it into my brain. In other words, I don’t need to focus on remembering the story…I just need to tell it.
In the weeks leading up to that first presentation, I thought about what I wanted to say—but I didn’t experience much anxiety. I did, however, formulate a game-plan. And so, a mere four days before the presentation, I calmly jotted down the key points I wanted to make and the rough chronological order of the story I wished to share.
The next morning, I read the notes once then put them aside. Then I stood in my living room and delivered a rough version of the presentation…and I do mean rough. For not only was I all over the place in terms of telling the story, but I also couldn’t stop crying. By the time I got to the part about seeing my husband, John, in the hospital the first time after his brain injury (as a result of a preventable fall at an unsafe workplace) I was sobbing uncontrollably.
This emotional response had not been factored into my plan. In between sobs, I thought to myself, Oh no! What if this happens when I’m actually delivering the presentation?
So I took a deep breath and exhaled—and it hit me that while the time away from delivering presentations had been good for me on many fronts, the biggest benefit may well have been that I had finally given my heart a chance to fully heal.
Perhaps the tears in my living room were a good sign? For the story of John’s easily preventable death is sad—which is precisely why it can be such an effective conduit for change. Maybe I needed to feel all those difficult emotions again, so as to help me deliver a more effective presentation? At any rate, I called it a day and just had to have faith in the process.
The next day, I delivered the presentation to my living room walls again—and cried significantly less. Hooray!
The next day I took a break and didn’t even think about the presentation, let alone practice it.
Then the next day, I delivered it to my living room walls one final time—cry-free—and I knew I was going to do just fine.
On presentation day, I made the decision not to take an outline, or any notes whatsoever, up with me to the podium. Notes had always been my baby blanket. Even if I didn’t have to refer to them, having them in my pocket made me feel more confident. But notes also meant structure and I didn’t want to be trying to remember to hit all my key points.
Rather, I just wanted to share the story that I had already trained my brain to recall.
And that’s exactly what happened; Brian’s technique worked beautifully. I found my voice—and it was, to my surprise, the voice of a storyteller versus a “presenter.” My presentation wasn’t perfect. But it was real. It was honest. Yes, it was heartbreakingly sad (although I didn’t cry, the pregnant woman in the front row didn’t fare so well) but the Q&A at the end was actually pretty funny (my post-widow love life is rather hilarious and, strangely enough, always of great interest to audiences).
Then there was the benefit that spilled over into the rest of my life. The sense of achievement that came from getting back in the saddle and doing, to the best of my ability, the thing I thought I could not do, gave me courage and confidence for tackling other challenging tasks.
If you are in a position where you need to be delivering presentations—but would rather stick knitting needles in your eyes, remember this: you are not the hero. Your audience is. You are merely the guide who has an important role to play in ensuring that your presentation has impacted as many people as possible to go out and be a hero in their own lives and communities.
And that is worth dealing with the dread of public speaking.
Previously Published on Pink Gazelle