I don’t use that word lightly — I really mean dread.
And I know, I know, they say you’re always supposed to visualize yourself giving the best speech of your life and that telling yourself you’re bad at public speaking only ensures that you will be.
But I don’t mean this post as some kind of motivational speech for myself or as a means of reassurance and positive reaffirmation for others who experience this (so if you have a presentation coming up and you too hate public speaking, I’d bookmark this post and stop right here.) And it’s not a form of self-deprecation or self-pity either.
It’s really just a simple declaration and an honest reflection: I don’t like giving presentations.
Quite frankly, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable and I don’t even know why. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true — I can think of about two reasons why.
The first is that I think most of it comes down to being afraid I’ll mess up in front of people.
Which is so silly to me because I don’t think of myself as someone who really seeks external validation from others. I mean I know as human beings we all seek some sort of affirmation from our peers, but for me this desire is not so extremely pressing that my entire self-worth depends on it — it’s just of the normal variety of pressing.
It’s also silly because I used to actually be somewhat decent at giving presentations and speaking in front of large crowds. I used to be in theater arts and choir when I was in elementary school and middle school. I really loved and actually craved being in the spotlight. In fourth grade, I begged to be the M.C. for my school’s culture day show. I had a main part in my eight grade play as well as a few duets throughout my years in choir (guess I was never good enough for solos, but I digress). I used to be in Mock Trial for three years in high school where I always got the role of an attorney and had to give lengthy opening and closing statements, question and cross-examine witnesses, and think on my feet to come up with reasonable objections.
And all of this is not to say I never got nervous — no, of course, I would get nervous because that’s normal and almost everyone gets nervous before talking in front of a crowd. But that’s not what happens to me now when I have to speak in front of people — this is something different altogether.
Now when I speak, my entire body and nervous system shut down and enter a sort of panic mode. My hands actually shake — I know, it’s absolutely ridiculous! I lose all ability to think critically and on my feet. I start speaking really fast. And worst of all, my voice starts quivering. This last one is actually kind of funny because while I can hear and feel my voice noticeably shaking, I’ve had the absolute great pleasure of listening to and watching a recording of myself giving a presentation before and, honestly, you can hardly even tell my voice is shaking. But internally it just feels so obvious.
The second reason that I think has caused this downward spiral is that I know I have definitely conditioned myself to freak out at the mere thought of having to speak in front of people.
In fact, I think I can actually trace back the origins of most of this.
The first time I had a very terrible and embarrassing presentation was towards the end of my senior year of high school. I was in a writing class. I had written a paper about Sierra Leone and during class, we had to get up and a randomly-selected peer would ask us a question about our paper and we had to answer it. Luckily for me, the person who had to ask me questions about my paper was a friend of mine who was not talking to me at the time (your typical high school, teenage drama and shenanigans). And for some reason, I panicked. I got really nervous and I couldn’t think that clearly. I could feel my voice shaking and just thought to myself, “Oh my god, what’s happening? What’s wrong with me?”
I felt so embarrassed afterwards especially since it was such a small class and no one else had been so visibly nervous like I was. Still, I kinda brushed it off and thought nothing of it.
But then came The Big Blunder. This event — which clearly needs its own proper noun because of how excruciatingly embarrassing and life-defining it was — happened in my sophomore year of college. It. Was. Bad.
I had to give a 10-minute presentation for my computer science class (side note: I majored in Linguistics & Computer Science in college and I’m a software developer now). Honestly, I don’t even remember what the presentation was about. This is partially due to the fact that it was so bad that I have since tried to completely eradicate it from my memory, but mostly it’s due to the fact that I never even prepped for that presentation in the first place. I spent so much of my time working on my PowerPoint and hardly anytime figuring out or practicing what it was I was actually going to say. I thought I could just “wing it”. Yeah…that did not go as planned.
I got up there, surrounded by all these guys who had been programming since they came out of the womb and I had no idea what to say — I panicked. I stuttered. My voice was shaking. I was completely incoherent. I just wanted it to be over. I felt like a pig going in for slaughter. I could see other people turning their heads, feeling embarrassed for me. It was traumatic.
Disclaimer: I got an A on that presentation but I genuinely think that it was either because (a) everyone got an A on those presentations since the class was about computer science and not presentation skills, or (b) the TA pitied me so much that she just couldn’t not give me an A.
My most recent blunder was about a year and a half ago when I had to give a presentation about my work in front of a few managers and colleagues. Surprise! It was also awful. However, this presentation was defining in a different way. It was a turning point. After that presentation, I just felt so fed-up and had kind of an “enough is enough” moment. I talked to my manager and told him this was something I needed to work on and asked him to give me as many speaking opportunities as possible.
And since then, I have been doing a lot to try to work on this. Over the past year and a half I made it a goal of mine — not to become the world’s greatest speaker, but just to improve.
I’ve since presented at work countless times: from groups as small as two to crowds as large as 90. I also joined Toastmasters. In fact, my ice breaker presentation was about my fear of public speaking (how meta) and I gotta say it was a damn good presentation! I even got a standing ovation for it! Which was super cool.
I also got to present at a really high-stakes competition earlier this year in Dubai. It was for the Hult Prize for a chance to win $1 million in seed funding for a telemedicine app to help Syrian refugees. I even had my own 15 seconds of fame (not minutes, that would way be too long) when I spoke to a crowd of over 500 people in Philadelphia at the Comcast walk-out in protest of the immigration ban! Granted, I was incredibly nervous and definitely could have said a lot more than I did, but regardless, I got up there and did it and for that I’m quite proud of myself.
So, clearly, I can see that I’ve come a long way, but, sometimes, it feels like the improvements have been negligible and almost unnoticeable. I still get so nervous and anxious the days leading up to a presentation and when I do have to speak, I start talking so quickly, my voice shakes (or at least it feels like it does), and my thoughts become so incoherent. I can never just be comfortable and at ease speaking in front of people and it always feels like a punishment rather than an opportunity to share and express my thoughts. That being said, watching that video of me presenting made me realize that a good chunk of all of this is probably just happening in my head and that most people can’t even tell how nervous I am.
I think my “next steps” if you will, are to join a local improv group so I can improve my ability to think on the spot, to keep making presentations at work, to utilize writing on this blog as a means to improve my ability to put abstract and jumbled-up thoughts into coherent sentences, and to continue with Toastmasters. I might also watch a few speeches from President Obama several times a week. That’s probably the key to all this.
I really don’t know if this is one of those things where it’s just a matter of time and a few years from now I’ll look back at this and be giving a motivational Ted Talk titled “I Used to Have a Fear of Public Speaking But Look at Me Now!”…Or if this will just be a lifelong battle that I don’t necessarily end up winning.
I guess only time will tell. I’ll keep you posted.