I’ve come to enjoy giving presentations, but no way did I start this way. I was mortified to speak in public only a few years ago, well into my thirties.
How did I grow and develop to love public speaking?
The same way as anyone. Experience.
In my life experience means failing and getting back up again. It means overcoming embarrassment and anxiety, risking being laughed at, acting like I know what I’m doing when I don’t feel like I do, hoping they don’t notice my fear, … you know what I’m talking about.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think the quintessential fear of putting yourself out for others to evaluate you is to feel like when you were picked on as a child. Is that just me? I feel like no matter how cool you were, at some point people made fun of you in school and that feeling of shame never leaves. Or did I just reveal something about myself that not everyone experienced? See? It still affects you, decades later.
It also means I had some great experiences — my first time on stage in front of 500 people, in my thirties, comes to mind, as does playing ultimate at Nationals and other big tournaments with cheers from big crowds.
My first time wasn’t a great experience.
I was in physics graduate school at Penn, working on a particle physics experiment called BaBar (a pun, named after the children’s book elephant character). I had to present on some of my work on parts of the detector not even physics-related at Stanford. It was about a computer model of a tiny part of a detector far from starting being built.
Can you see how intimidating this could have felt? I was young and having to present on what felt like incredibly hard subjects to an intellectually intense group. Oh, did I mention my advisor couldn’t make it? I knew nobody there.
They scheduled me to talk at the end of a session before a fifteen-minute break. As the time of my talk approached you know the routine — my heart raced, I couldn’t think of what to say, etc.
The talks before mine ran over. They pushed my talk to start the next session. Start? That meant people would have more attention and would pay attention more. I didn’t want that.
In the fifteen minutes between sessions I had to go to the bathroom three times! Nobody else knew, but that’s how anxious I felt. Three times in fifteen minutes?!? My body was freaking out.
I don’t remember much of the talk. It wasn’t particularly consequential. I can’t find any record of it on the web now, though this would have been 1994 or 95, mostly pre-internet. All I remember was someone asking me a question I couldn’t understand and having trouble figuring out how to answer.
I think they all understood it was a young graduate student’s first presentation, just like they’d had, and understood he had to go through the learning process too. Looking back now I wish I’d known to enjoy the process like I sometimes enjoy falling on my face today. I didn’t fall on my face then either. I may have felt like I did then, but I just learned.
Early difficulties mean nothing about your potential.
Intense emotions indicate areas with potential for great reward and growth.
Anyone can learn to speak in front of an audience.
Enjoy early experiences when people have low expectations. Having nothing to lose gives you freedom to try and experiment.
Here are two relevant posts:
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