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How I Overcame My Fear of Public Speaking

How I transformed from shy lawyer to keynote speaker in 5 steps

Feeling nervous about speaking in public is something many people can identify with.

But for a long time, I thought I was only one of a small group that felt that way.

As far back as I can remember, I had this irrational fear of speaking in front of groups. This persisted through school, university and much of my career as a lawyer.

The earliest memory I have of this fear showing up was my school play at the age of eight. I was really excited to be in the play, and yet when the time came to go on stage I felt this sense of panic wash over me – I literally got stage fright and remember clearly standing in the blazing spotlight. I couldn’t see the audience in the darkness behind the light but I knew there were lots of people there staring at me. I felt frozen.

That episode made a lasting impression on me that I carried around for many years. It prevented me from pursuing a career in Civil Engineering, as I couldn’t see myself as a project manager on a construction site with the confidence to effectively communicate and manage a team.

I became a lawyer instead – but (obviously) even then I couldn’t escape having to communicate with groups.

I started to develop a pattern of avoiding presentation opportunities, letting others be the spokesperson and making alternative arrangements on the same day as a client seminar so I wouldn’t have to give a talk.

This worked well for a while; until I realised that to get further ahead in my career and let people really see who I was and what I was capable of, I would have to do some presenting – both internally to colleagues and externally to clients.

The final straw came when I was asked to give a team update on a new development in law. I had been given two weeks notice to prepare a 10-minute training update for the rest of the team, which was plenty of time, except, as with anything we don’t like doing, I procrastinated and didn’t prepare until the last minute.

During the hour-long meeting, I could feel my levels of nervousness increase as every minute went by – my name was at the bottom of the agenda. When it came to my turn to talk I froze and couldn’t speak. To my embarrassment, one of the senior lawyers had to step in for me and give the update. My lack of preparation and fear of speaking had let me down that day and I became determined to never let it happen again.

The problem was partly my own mindset in believing that I was just a shy person who could never be good at public speaking.

The other factor was the lack of communication skills taught at school and university.

After that team meeting incident, I set about finding ways in which I could get some support and training outside of work. Here are some insights I gathered through self-discovery and investing in my own personal development:

1. Find Opportunities to Speak

One way to get better at presenting is to do more if it!

I looked for opportunities to speak at work and volunteered to give knowledge updates at team meetings. Speaking to a group of colleagues, especially when they are more senior than you, can be nerve-racking, so it’s good to be able to find other places where you can practice speaking in front of an audience.

Through an Internet search, I came across a local speaking club, which I could go to once a week after work. The club I went to was part of Toastmasters International, which is a non-profit membership organisation with clubs all over the world. Toastmasters have a programme where you can develop your skills through various speech projects over time as well as getting encouraging feedback from the other members.

2. Preparation

This is probably one of the most valuable lessons I learned – preparing the right way for a presentation or meeting.

The key is to really think about who will be in the audience and what they will find relevant - then structuring your content for their benefit. Once the structure is set, I create a mind map or flowchart with the main points listed in the right order. I can then use that mind map to review my talk in the days running up to my presentation. Feeling like I know the content well gives me a sense of confidence and helps me concentrate on being totally present on the day without having to think about what bit comes next and worrying that I might forget my material.

3. Rehearsal

It’s all very well learning your material, but if you can find time to rehearse it as well, it will make all the difference.

By practising out loud, you can get a feel for how the material flows and make adjustments if necessary. Plus, you can develop a sort of muscle memory. Your mind and body have gone through the motions so that on the day of your actual presentation it feels much more familiar.

If you can bring yourself to do it, it’s helpful to record your rehearsal on your smartphone – that way you can see and hear what your audience will experience.

4. Ask for Feedback

Recording your rehearsal on video is instant feedback, of course, but another equally powerful way is to rehearse with a live audience. This can be in front of colleagues or friends.

The benefit of practising in front of others is that you can ask them to give you their perspective on what they thought went well and what could be better next time.

5. Have a Plan of Action

Gaining confidence and improving technique when it comes to public speaking is an on-going process – even accomplished speakers continue to put in the effort when it comes to writing speeches and rehearsing.

With experience, that preparation time does get shorter so your process becomes more efficient.

It may be that you only have to give a presentation once in a while (e.g. an interview for a new job or for an annual client event), and of course you would prepare properly for that.

My suggestion is to keep working on your skills and find time to practise in front of others even if you don’t have a specific event to prepare for. Set some goals as part of your career development to regularly deliver a mock presentation, join a speaking club or to volunteer to speak at a team meeting – that way you keep honing your skills and improve your levels of confidence.

It took me a few years to discover the benefits of these techniques and I wish I had been aware of them much sooner as I am sure it would have helped me with my career aspirations.

One of the main reasons I write about my experiences and how I learned to overcome my public speaking challenges is so that others don’t have to go through that anxiety. I truly believe that it is possible to feel confident about presenting and also be good at it.

If I can do it anyone can – whatever stage of your career you are at. It just takes a bit of effort.

I went from being a shy lawyer to a keynote speaker.

(Photo by Richard Clyborne of Music Strive)

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