Seven stories of people who once had a crippling fear of public speaking and did something about it!
I am doing something new for this month’s blog article. I want to tell the stories of a seven people who decided that they were no longer going to let their fear of public speaking define them.
Why am I doing this? Most people with a fear of public speaking take years to do anything about it. They wait until the impact on their career or personal lives is so damaging that they have to act. I hope that these stories will encourage people to take action sooner. I hope that people will read these stories, recognise something of themselves, realise that it is possible to move past a crippling fear of public speaking, and find the courage to take action.
These are all true stories (although some names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people behind these stories). I know all these people personally – most but not all are past clients. There is a common theme that you might recognise. Most of these people say they still get nervous and that they are still working on improving their speaking skills. But in all cases they are no longer overwhelmed by fear to the point that it is impacting their lives. They are now able to feel the fear and do it anyway!
Karen can trace her fear back to a particular incident when she had a panic attack as a 12-year-old auditioning for an orchestra. She failed the audition, felt shame for years after that incident, and was never able to talk about it. Karen is a very warm ‘people person’ who loves to be challenged and appears outwardly confident. But her fear made her follow career paths that were more hidden away. She has worked in IT most of her life and describes her roles as ‘deskbound’ and ‘unchallenging’. She was never happy in these jobs and realised that if she wanted to do something more fulfilling she was going to have to throw herself into the situation she was terrified of!
Karen signed up for a Fear-less course and was very heartened to meet a group of people who were all clearly successful in life but had one debilitating fear in common. “I was not alone and my secret was no longer a secret!” she says. She realised, through the course, that she was intensely self-critical and was fixating on things about herself that other people did not see or barely noticed. For example, she realised that her nervousness was far more obvious to her than to others. By concentrating on delivering her message rather than judging herself she was ultimately able to relax more. (See a previous blog post “Think purpose, not performance” for an explanation of why this works).
Karen says that she has achieved what she thought was impossible and can now speak to audiences without falling apart. This has removed a cloud that has followed her for her whole life and has given her a huge confidence boost in all areas of her life. She has finally been able to choose a new career path with nothing to hold her back. She has followed her heart and become a primary school teacher and ‘couldn’t be happier’. Her only regret – that she did not act sooner!
Hamish is a little different to many of my clients in that his fear of public speaking has impacted his personal life more than his career. Hamish is a tradesman and has never been interested in climbing the corporate ladder. He has always considered himself an introvert but the realisation that he hated public speaking came at a wedding. As the groomsman he had to read messages from people who couldn’t be there. The formality and size of the event made him freeze and he decided that he would steer clear of public speaking after that.
Avoiding public speaking has definitely taken its toll on Hamish. He managed to avoid it for years as friends and family always stepped up to help him out. However, he reached the point where it became harder to avoid and he ‘no longer wanted to be that person’. He was also envious of his brothers who were good public speakers and he wanted to be able to have his say at family functions and events.
Hamish enrolled in a Fear-less course and realised that his fear was a common problem. He found that with the right tools, adequate preparation, and taking ‘baby steps’ he could improve his skills and increase his confidence. Although it hasn’t always been easy and he is still working on it, he also feels that something he saw as a huge problem is actually quite simple if you just stick with these things.
Hamish now actively looks for opportunities to have is say rather than avoiding it. He feels that the ability to have your say is a real gift.
Melissa and Charlotte’s stories
Melissa and Charlotte do not know each other but they have a lot in common. I have decided to tell their stories together as they are typical of many of my clients. They have both feared public speaking from a young age, work in marketing, achieved career success at a young age, have experienced the ‘imposter syndrome’, and are outwardly confident and competent people whose fear of public speaking would probably surprise their colleagues.
Melissa says that her fear began at age 10 when she had to give a speech to her class that she felt went badly. She felt very embarrassed at the time and afterwards and began to dread speaking up in front of others. She avoided activities like debating that interested her. She believed that public speaking was a talent that others had and she lacked so made no effort to improve. (See a previous blog article “How to apply a ‘growth mindset’ to public speaking”.)
Professionally, Melissa had early career success and was still in her twenties when she led a team. However, she describes herself as suffering from the ‘imposter syndrome’ where she doubted her own abilities as an employee and team leader and was worried about being exposed as a fraud (see a previous blog article “The ‘imposter syndrome’ may explain your fear of public speaking”).
Her profession meant that she couldn’t avoid public speaking but she felt very anxious beforehand and afterwards she would beat herself up about things she didn’t feel went well.
Melissa enrolled for the Fear-less public speaking course and has also gone on to do a Toastmaster sponsored course. She says that persistence, patience and kindness have helped her make a lot of progress as well as the realisation that the majority of people, including some very famous people like Richard Branson and Julia Roberts, have had a fear of public speaking at some point in their lives.
She now volunteers for speaking opportunities and is careful to acknowledge what she has done well and avoid focussing excessively on what did not go as well. She also makes a point of asking others for feedback and been very encouraged to have colleagues comment on how much she has improved – including people who have no idea she has taken public speaking courses.
Charlotte doesn’t remember exactly how her fear of public speaking came about but remembers shaking in front of her classmates as she did a presentation as an 8-year-old. She always felt awkward about having attention directed towards her.
Charlotte has also felt like an imposter and had a period, following a promotion, where she was convinced that her boss was about to tell her she was not up to the job every time he asked to see her. She feels that her fear of public speaking has held her back professionally as she has avoided putting herself forward for tasks where she would have to lead and present.
For Charlotte, the breakthrough was the realisation, after watching herself on video, that she was better at public speaking than she thought. This has led to more positive experiences that have helped give her confidence that she can do it. She sees this as a gradual process and is still working on improving. She feels that taking steps to address her fear of public speaking has really helped her to lead workshops for work colleagues on subjects that she feels strongly about such as wellbeing, mindfulness and nutrition.
Reza is a GP and entrepreneur who had an intense fear of public speaking despite being highly articulate! Although most people who fear public speaking, are better than they believe, the gap between Reza’s ability and his confidence was extreme.
Reza believes his fear of public speaking developed as a student when he was underprepared for the intense oral testing. Reza says that he assessment methods “involved public humiliation in front of peers and seniors, in the form of probing interrogations designed to put students on the spot.” His self-confidence plummeted and he once fainted in front of a teaching group which was a deeply embarrassing and pivotal moment. The final turning point for Reza came at his own wedding where he nearly fainted again – his vision started to darken peripherally, his ears were ringing, and he was drenched in sweat. Interestingly his audience did not seem to notice his nervousness and he had great feedback on his speech, but this experience was the catalyst for seeking help. Like Hamish, he wanted to enjoy delivering speeches to loved ones.
Reza joined a Toastmasters club where he has made tremendous progress with the help of his peers and mentors. Like Karen, Reza has found it useful to focus on his audience and what they could gain from his words, rather than his own internal state of unease. He also spent many months cultivating mindfulness and these techniques have helped him to quieten his intense self-doubt.
Since joining Toastmasters Reza has delivered key notes speeches at international conferences, lead meetings and teams, pitched to investors, and even won a public speaking competition. Reza points out that the fear is still there but it is now on his terms and at a level appropriate to the occasion. This is an important point that many people don’t realise. Public speaking is a form of performing and it is natural (and even helpful) to feel some nervousness before a performance.
While many of my clients have had a life-long fear of public speaking, there is another large group who have lost their confidence in public speaking at some point in their lives, usually as a result of a change in career or taking time out of their career to care for children. Often they have also experienced a stressful event in their lives that has contributed to general anxiety. Sharon is typical of this group of clients.
Sharon is an architect who was always very confident about public speaking and performed very well in pressured situations such as interviews and client presentations. She also taught for a few months and was used to presenting to other teachers and speaking up in staff meetings.
Then she had an incident that completely blindsided her and knocked her confidence. She was asked to present for the launch of a course she was involved in teaching and was excited by the opportunity. She prepared some great visuals that she knew would stun the large audience of media, students, photographers, parents, teachers, and industry peers. On the day of the launch she was surprised by the size of the audience but it did not bother her until five minutes into the presentation when her voice started shaking, she felt panicky, her legs felt wobbly and she had to clutch the podium to struggle through. She managed to pull it together and finish but afterwards she felt mortified by the experience. Any time she was asked to speak from this point onwards the panic would set in and she was terrified by this, knowing that it could appear from nowhere. Sharon says she lost her professional spark after this incident. She stopped teaching, avoided applying for exciting new roles as they specified you had to be a ‘confident communicator’ and felt that she was not performing to her full potential in her current role.
I recall Sharon calling me about the Fear-less course and her biggest concern was that she would be the worst person there! The first night of the course Sharon said that she was so scared that she texted her husband saying “OMG! I don’t want to do this. Why did I do this?” She told herself that she didn’t have to come back but even after the first class she started to feel that maybe it would be OK.
Through the course Sharon started to realise that she was better than she gave herself credit for. Her shaky voice had really worried her as she thought it was a complete give-away about the state of nervousness, but when I explained that we hear the shake in our own voice before anyone else does, she understood that it was probably not obvious to others. She realised that preparation and practice are essential. She also gained a bit of perspective - that others are not ‘hanging on your every word’ and that it is often hard to know what our audience is thinking.
Sharon’s career is on hold currently for personal reasons but she now feels much more confident about applying for new roles and taking on new exciting opportunities. Like so many others, she regrets that she did not act sooner.
As I was finalising this article I decided that I should add my own story. I tell this story to my clients on the first night of the course and I do so to gain credibility, show empathy, and to practice what I preach about ‘being vulnerable’. This is the first time I have told this story outside of my small group sessions. I sometimes tell others that I used to be nervous about public speaking but I tend to downplay it. This is because the recollection of freezing in front of an audience still feels shameful 15 years later!
I had mixed experiences of public speaking when I was young. Most were good but occasionally I became intensely self-conscious. I remember reading a poem at school that I had written and my throat closed up so that I could barely produce a sound. Despite having these ‘moments’ I developed into quite a confident speaker in my twenties and thirties. I was a policy advisor to local government and I led elected members (who are not always a forgiving audience) through some difficult decision- making processes.
But then I had a decade working part time and very rarely presenting to audiences. And I lost my confidence. When I returned to full time work I was at a senior level and expected to present frequently. I started having waves of panic and often felt ‘disconnected’ from my own words. One day my mouth went completely dry and I could not produce a drop of saliva. Another time I froze in front of the senior management team. I started blushing and sweating profusely and then the opposite happened - all the blood drained from my face and I felt cold. I somehow recovered and carried on but after that incident I realised I had two choices – change careers and hide myself away or take action.
I finally joined a Toastmaster club and like many of my clients realised that I was being unduly harsh on myself. I discovered that I spoke best when I was well prepared and confident in my topic. By learning techniques such as pausing and eye contact, I was able to look more confident than I felt – until gradually my confidence caught up. For years after joining Toastmasters I sometimes still had moments of panic that would often appear from nowhere. But I also found that I could let a wave of panic wash over me and carry on without anyone noticing. The knowledge that I could do this meant that these moments became fewer and fewer.
I started Fear-less Public Speaking because of my knowledge that the fear of public speaking is incredibly common, can be significantly reduced with the right support, and the gains can be life-changing. Taking action has allowed me to transition into a new career doing something that makes a difference to people’s lives. I thank everyone who has shared their stories so candidly as it reinforces for me, why I do what I do.
Written by Catherine Syme
I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.