For most people, the idea of speaking to a group of people is daunting to the point of being the most common phobia. Since it’s such a widespread issue, and one that can impact your relationships, careers, and lives in general, I wanted to take a moment today and tell you a little bit about how I overcame that fear to a large extent.
All through my childhood and into my college years, I was more than a little bit shy. I wouldn’t talk much in class and refused to perform solos (I’m a saxophonist!). Once my college years drew to a close, however, I decided that I wanted to become a professor. Now, about a decade later, I’m one of the most highly reviewed instructors in several departments, and I’ve been known to give hour-long lectures without consulting notes a single time.
Oh, and did I mention that I stutter, too? It typically gets worse when I’m anxious, and often when I try to read out loud from texts. The fear of public speaking, of course, did not help matters, so, until I absolutely had to, I did not speak much in public at all, to the extent that several of my undergraduate professors, who are now my colleagues, were shocked to learn that I could speak at all.
The thing that helped me overcome those fears and difficulties the most was, to put it bluntly, preparation. Before I lecture on any book, article, or text, I make sure to read it enough times that I understand it inside and out, and can answer any question that someone might think to pose about it. From there, I hand-write notes that, if all else fails and I totally blank out, I can more or less recover by reading from those notes verbatim.
Funnily enough, just knowing that I know the material, and having those notes is usually enough to keep me from stuttering at all, and I almost never look at the notes unless I need to recall a quote or a page number.
The other thing that has helped a lot is practice. As an early-career teaching assistant, I would give, if I was lucky, two or three lectures a semester. This week, I’ll spend fifteen hours of the work week talking. Most of the time, I’m not anxious at all anymore, and, in fact, those are some of the best hours of my week by far.
The point I want to make is that it’s far from impossible to overcome a fear of speaking in public. Usually, people are more than generous to folks speaking to a crowd. One student, one time, snickered when I stuttered: their classmates gave them a scolding before I could so much as register what had happened.
Like anything else difficult, the keys to getting more comfortable with public speaking lie in preparation in repetition. Also, I’m still a little bit nervous every semester on the first class, so embracing the discomfort is also an important step in the process.