I teased a few weeks ago that I would write a separate post detailing how I — a man who is deathly afraid of public speaking — gave a public speech for 15 minutes.
If you missed the post about the speech, you can find it here.
Seriously, I’m being glib about it, but social anxiety, often manifest in public speaking, has derailed my life many times. Most prominently, I would argue that social anxiety made my college career hell, where whenever it came time to select classes for next semester, I dreaded it because it meant it was time to cross-reference classes with seemingly no public speaking expectations with classes I needed to take for general education requirements and my degree.
My typical four-year college career turned into seven years primarily because of this anxiety.
And what’s interesting is I don’t remember it always being this bad. I have a memory of giving a speech in front of my class in elementary school on a science project using one of those classic trifold posters and being excited about it? Happy to show off my trifold poster?
In fifth grade, I remember being excited to get in front of the class and read my poetry! What happened to that kid?
Because somewhere along the way though, I became deathly afraid of standing in front of the class to where by freshman year of high school, I have a different memory of one of my friends calling on me to read a passage from a book in front of the class as a “joke” and seeing me turn into a sweaty, voice-breaking tomato on a stool in front of said class. He apologized afterward and said he’d never do that to me again.
The last speech I remember giving prior to this most recent one was in March 2016. My gender studies professor invited me to introduce the fantastic documentary, The Mask You Live In, about toxic masculinity and I said I would. I was terrified again, but I’m passionate about the subject and I had already seen the documentary.
In hindsight, it’s weird to think this most recent speech was my first in more than five years.
Anyhow, how did I get through it this time? Well, for starters, I think it helped that for the past 70-some days up to that point, I was in therapy and working on my depression and my anxiety. That gave me the tools to not get bogged down in the negative spirals I usually would in anticipation of giving a speech. That gave me the tools to not do my usual thing of saying yes to something only to find a way to back out of it later. That gave me the tools to tell my brain, “You will not literally die here. You will survive. You will be okay.”
Positive thinking sounds so simple? But until you find that breakthrough with therapy and actively work at it to combat the negative spiraling thoughts, it’s not so simple.
I also have to say that working out through FitOn actually helped because there’s a favorite exercise I do with the trainer, Bree Koegel, where the exercise is a ladder flow. That is, you start doing reps on each exercise of one, two, three, four and then five and then go back down the ladder. When we got back down the ladder to one, she told us we would finish by doing five again. Through that last rep of five, she was pumping us up, “Of course you can do this, why would you ever doubt it?”
I had that mantra in my head leading up to my speech, too. Again, all part of that positive talking to myself.
The next biggest item to helping me get through this speech was rehearsing. This was particularly revelatory for me. I’d always heard about doing this because I’ve always researched how to survive public speaking and this always came up as a recommendation, but I’d never actually put it to practice.
I wrote my speech the Saturday evening before I was to deliver it on Wednesday. I practiced it that evening. Then Sunday morning and Sunday night. And Monday morning and Monday night. And Tuesday morning and Tuesday night. And then Wednesday morning and Wednesday afternoon.
By the time, I delivered the speech, it was like muscle memory. I was delivering a speech I was intimately familiar with and it was only a matter of standing up there and going through that muscle memory. Once I got into the beats of the speech, it was like I was standing in front of my kitchen table again and the people in front of me watching disappeared.
In fact, I’ve often used chewing gum in social situations to help with my anxiety and in this case, I discarded the gum because I realized I hadn’t rehearsed with it and it felt weird in my mouth moments before going up there. Ha.
Finally, three other items that helped: 1.) When I got to the ceremony ahead of time to get a lay of the land, a county commissioner I’ve talked with was also there and for 15 minutes before the start, we chit-chatted. Having to make small talk meant I wasn’t thinking about my speech. 2.) The audience I was delivering the speech to was always going to be receptive to what I was saying because of the content and because they are at a somber ceremony. It was the perfect audience to temper my fears. 3.) I promised myself a reward for “getting through” the speech: a Chipotle burrito, something I hadn’t allowed myself to have in a very long time because I’ve been eating better.
When I rehearsed the speech, my legs were a bit restless, sort of bouncy. By the time I stood up there, I was fine. The only thing I noticed was that my upper lip dried up pretty good. I also had a hard time maintaining eye contact with the audience, but nevertheless. I did it.
I freaking did it! Me! A 15-minute speech! What?! I have not had that rush of adrenaline in such a long time as I did after delivering the speech. I was flying high and quite frankly, admittedly, proud of myself.
If you’re like me and terrified of public speaking, but have to give a speech soon, I hope these techniques I mention can help you, too.
It’s given me the confidence that should a public speaking situation come up again, I could do it again. That knowledge is empowering.