Saturday, 26 April 2014

How I beat my fear of Public Speaking

Left: 2012, speaking at a World Vision event of around 50 people. Although I look slightly overenthusiastic, I was more than nervous - my school principal was in that room. Right: Speaking at Southern Easter Camp on Tour in front of 700, sharing the story of the beautiful Malawian people.

Last year I read an article that found that women fear public speaking more than they fear death. This fact seems dramatic to me now, but a couple of years ago I would have been in the exact same boat. Here's the (very long but very condensed) story of how I beat my fear of public speaking and a couple of tips on how you may be able to beat the fear, too.

During my junior years of high school I was your typical shy kid, the person who would sit silent in class without making a peep because I was simply just too nervous. It didn't help that I was short, gangly (sort of still am), had glasses, braces and a bob cut that didn't suit my face. During my first year of high school, we were assigned to present a speech in front of the whole class as a marked assessment. I worried for weeks and even had to re-print several copies of my cue cards because my clammy palms kept running the ink when I practiced at home. Throughout the days we were presenting, I sat nervously in my seat and hoped the speaking list would be pushed back so I had one more day where I wouldn't have to embarrass myself in front of the class.

The day where the teacher called out my name, I stood up, walked to the front of the class and looked at my already-crumpled cue cards - it was one of the worst days of my life. So I began, screwed up on my first sentence and asked to start over, so I did. I restarted, making minimal eye contact, laughed, then sighed, and only after the second cue card did I remember to breathe, I continued, looked up and immediately scanned my eyes down again after noticing the camera they were using to record us. It was probably one of the fastest speeches I had ever delivered, I knew people were clapping at the end out of pity. That was the day I knew I would never be good at public speaking. It didn't help that I decided my topic was going to be 'Inside Jokes', I mean, what the heck? What was I thinking? I had a lot to learn. It surprised me that I somehow passed (barely) and my best friend failed because our teacher thought that her topic, dumpster diving, wasn't "legitimate and appropriate." Who gets to validate these decisions, anyway?

The year after we had to do the same assessment, I remember that one being marginally better because by then I knew a lot my classmates. Even though a lot of the people in my class were friends, it didn't change the fact that they were sitting down and watching me and I was standing up and presenting making a fool of myself. Thirty seconds into presenting, I looked up to make the eye contact I hardly remembered to deliver and spotted my friend in the front row who mouthed 'slow it down'. Only after that cue did I remember to take a breath whenever I saw a full stop.

Things only changed in my second to last year of high school, when I involved myself in the 40 Hour Famine at school as a leader in the World Vision Club. At the beginning of the year I learnt about a little girl in East Timor called Lily, who didn't have enough food to eat every day because of the food crisis. Lily became my little sister that year, and something sparked inside me like nothing I had ever felt before - a passion to fight for Lily and the children around the world in similar situations. As a leader, I had to stand in front of year group assemblies and tell her story in front of 200 students around three times a week. In one of the first ever assemblies we booked we had Devon, a Schools Relationship Coordinator from World Vision, come and speak for the first time at our school. I asked her, "Devon, you do this as your job, speaking in front of assemblies and inspiring high school students, don't you ever get nervous?" She replied, "Of course I get nervous, the day I stop getting nervous before speaking in front of a group is the day I will quit my job because that's the day I stop being passionate." I didn't want to stop being passionate, three years later, this is the mindset I come back to when I get nervous before talking.

A video: Lily's story.

So I presented at my first year group assembly, videos ready to show, script in hand and the attitude ready to change the world. I stood behind the lectern and presented. I didn't mess up once. For the rest of the year I presented in assemblies, shared stories, told students about how we could help our friends overseas who are living in such hardship and I found so much passion in being able to tell people that we can make a difference. I got an excellence in my speech assessment that year (which is the highest grade you can get, for those of you unfamiliar with NCEA) and I forgot about the days where I felt nervous about standing in front of a group of people.

But it doesn't end there. My passion and love for World Vision and the 40 Hour Famine took me to Malawi as a Youth Ambassador, and I came back with tears that could fill a thousand buckets and stories I could tell for the rest of my life. Talking about the 40 Hour Famine was different for me now, I was no longer speaking to crowds about children I had seen through videos, but about children I had met, played with, conversed with and opened my hearts to. My fear of public speaking briefly returned as I began to doubt how confidently I could express my experience. But then, Devon came to my rescue once again and told me I didn't have to figure out my stories straight away but reminded me that people aren't necessarily going to remember what you say, but they'll definitely remember how you say it. After she said this, I just always remember to open my heart and say whatever I was going to say as genuinely as I can possibly say it.