How I overcame my fear of public speaking and why that sucks a little bit
In February 2005, I got an email from Lisa from the Elearning Network of Australasia (ElNet). It was a voluntary organization that she set up with her agency business partner to progress the Elearning industry mainly in Australia. I was working in the Government, building elearning courses including some cool projects with Lisa’s agency.
Lisa wanted to know if I was happy to present at the ElNet conference she was planning for later in the year. I was scared shitless of the idea but I knew that wasn’t a good enough reason to say no. So I agreed.
The conference wasn’t until November so I had the best part of a year to plan (worry) about the event. And that’s exactly what I did.
I would think about it most days and wonder how I was going to do it. I worked for months on a flash-based presentation full of animation and examples of courses we had worked on. Whenever I would think about it I’d feel physically sick at the thought of speaking in front of a group. Every time I got an email from Lisa about a project, any time I saw anything from ElNet, most days really, I’d get that sinking reminder of what I was going to have to do. I imagined myself standing in front of hundreds of people and talking. I really had no idea how that was going to work. I struggled just standing in front of one person talking.
I can’t tell you how many times I thought about it and worried about it that year.
On the day of the event I planned to fly down in the morning of my session which was scheduled for 10am. I was also pretty scared of travelling, in particular flying in planes so I wanted to get it out of the way quick.
I was all organized, had my laptop and my flashy presentation, even donned a suit. I got to the airport and made an interesting discovery. I’d screwed up my times and I was an hour late. My flight had already left!
I managed to get on the next flight but by this time I was so panicked and stressed I didn’t even know if I’d be able to present at the event. It was overcast as well so I was extra nervous about flying. As the plane was taking off my palms were sweating so much I had to keep wiping them on my pants. I thought I was going to die, but then I came to my senses and calmed down. You have to focus on the positives. “Yes you might die”, I thought “but at least then you won’t have to do the presentation!”.
It was at that point when I heard a massive bang and the whole plane shook. We had just been struck by lightning.
I freaked the fuck out. I had no idea what was going to happen except of course I knew I was going to die. The pilot came over the PA system all casual and said yeah that happens sometimes, it’s all good.
Well I did present at that conference (more on that later), but it would be my last conference presentation for 9 years.
Eventually I decided to get back into speaking. The first event was WordCamp Sydney at the end of 2014, the day before I launched The 7 Day Startup. In the 8 months or so since, I’ve spoken in Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne, Bangkok & Cebu in venues ranging from 50 to 400 people including conferences like the $4,000 / head Tropical Think Tank in the Philippines, The 700 person strong Problogger and the Brisbane and Melbourne Digital Marketing Summit.
The impact I’ve made with speaking has been very surprising to me, here is a sample of some of the tweets.
But the biggest thing for me is yesterday’s Digital Summit in Melbourne, was the first event I’ve presented where I haven’t been nervous.
Here are the 8 things that helped me go from certainty of death, to zero nerves and ultimately get over my fear of public speaking. If you are nervous about public speaking, I recommend you do the following.
1. Understand the power of public speaking
At the end of 2014 I decided to have another crack at public speaking. It had been 9 years since my first attempt. In that time I’d only attended 2 or 3 conferences, and the idea of speaking at one scared me more than I can tell you. But I decided that it was a better option than being a pussy, so I agreed to speak at WordCamp.
I attended the first day of the event, walked around not knowing anyone and worried myself sick about what the next day would be like. I thought very seriously about flying home and pretending I was never there. No one knew me, no one talked to me, I was too scared to talk to anyone else, the organizers probably didn’t even know I was there.
But I did turn up on day 2 and spoke to a small group of around 60-80 people.
I remember it being a hell of a lot easier than I imagined. I just went up the front, and talked for 30 minutes. People loved it, I wasn’t that nervous and it went well.
It was the day The 7 Day Startup was uploaded to Amazon. I know that because someone in the audience searched for it and found it and told me in front of everyone during the Q&A session at the end of my talk. It was supposed to go live the next day.
But it was what happened afterwards that had a lasting impact. I had a few people come up to me afterwards who wanted to chat and thank me for my talk. Since then I’ve learned that this is standard when you speak at conferences. At the time I was blown away, but it was one lady in particular who taught me a big lesson.
She came up to me and said something like “Thankyou so much for this talk, you have truly changed my life”. She didn’t stick around to talk, she just walked off. I had written 700 blog posts in the 5 years prior trying to spread my message, and never once had anyone ever said anything like that to me.
From that day forward, every time I have spoken, to help me battle my nerves I’ve thought about that moment and said to myself “You might actually change someone’s life today”. I probably sound like a wanker saying that but if you are nervous about public speaking, it helps to know that it’s not all about you. You might truly reach people in ways you otherwise can’t, and when it’s about other people and not you, well you just have to get it done.
2. Recognize the autopilot factor
When I was speaking at WordCamp something weird happened. I was about 10 minutes into my presentation and I sort of felt like I was watching myself from afar. I just had a moment where I was like “Holy shit I’m speaking”. That was weird enough but what was weirder is I noticed something. I wasn’t actually nervous. It had been about 10 minutes, I hadn’t really thought about nerves and I hadn’t really thought about anything. I was on auto pilot.
I’ve heard the same thing from a lot of other public speakers. For the time they are on stage, they kind of black out, and go into auto pilot mode.
I think this is even the case with experienced presenters. They become someone else when they are on stage and before they know it, their session is over and they barely remember it. I spoke with Matthew Kimberley about this (more on Matthew below) who said this “I go into a heightened sense of being. I become a better, more engaging and more interesting version of myself, feed off energy in the room and get amped up. An entire gig can go by super fast. I might forget sections of it. I think that’s adrenaline”.
I guess my point is, if you aren’t going to remember it anyway, and you aren’t even going to realize you are doing it, then why worry about it?
3. Have a calm anchor
When I was in the Philippines speaking at the Tropical Think Tank event, I had a lot of great chats with my mate James Schramko. In one conversation he mentioned the idea of having anchors. This is my recollection of it. I might have completely misunderstood the concept but it works for me. He held his wrist with his thumb and finger and said “this is an example of an anchor, when I do this I feel calm”.
This sounded like a good idea, and I definitely need to feel calm so I started doing it. I have a bracelet thingy (above) that I got as a present at that event and every time I need to feel calm, I hold that and close my eyes for a second and think back to the event.
A few weeks later at a Duane Alley training course (more on that later), I learned a bit more about these anchors. I don’t know if I’m convinced that there is some sort of gesture that behaves as an ‘anchor’ that magically makes you calm. But I do know that I’ve gotten in the habit of holding my bracelet when I need to, and it makes me stop, breath and that alone calms me down.
So in summary. Do it 🙂
4. Realize that you probably enjoy it
I mentioned above when I presented at WordCamp, I went into a kind of autopilot mode. The other weird realization I had at that time was I specifically remember thinking “I’m actually enjoying this!”.
I liked the feeling of speaking to a bunch of people who were intently listening to me. For all the stress I had been through working up to it and worrying about how bad it would be, it was crazy to think that maybe I could actually enjoy doing this?
I love creating content and sharing what I’m doing. So why is it so crazy that I would like doing that in person from the stage?
I think the reality is that most people probably would enjoy speaking in front of a decent size group of people. If you took nerves out of the equation, most people wouldn’t mind 30 minutes of attention. 30 minutes where you can talk about what you love and be looked up to as an expert.
The thing you fear so much might actually be something you like, which is kind of crazy right?
5. Make your content 100% original
Every time I’ve spoken at an event I’ve inevitably made the mistake of comparing myself to other speakers. There was no worse example than this than Tropical Think Tank in 2015. I was the 3rd speaker of day 1. It was a $4,000 event and I had to follow John Dumas and Matthew Kimberley. There were giant signs around the room with my face on it!
John is an incredibly outgoing and engaging speaker with an amazing story. I knew his stuff well and has been following him for years, but I was still blown away by his moving and inspirational talk.
I’d met Matthew the night before. He was an amazingly funny and charismatic person. But that humor and charisma at the bar was nothing compared to Matthew on stage. The guy was a serious pro! Insanely funny, polished, dramatic and just plain fucking awesome to be honest.
Following these guys was not easy but I had to keep telling myself that no matter how good other people were, they couldn’t tell my story. My content is 100% original. My story is uniquely mine. I’ve worked hard on my content and my message to make sure that when someone hears it, I can at least guarantee that they won’t have heard it before and they won’t hear it again. I tell myself this when I get nervous about not being as good as other presenters.
If you are a new presenter, with your own story and unique content then you have a big advantage, so keep telling yourself that.
6. Realize that speaking is easier than attending
I think the biggest shift in getting over my fear of public speaking was the simple realization that I wasn’t that scared of it after all. I’ve always been nervous with in person networking and socializing generally. I find it pretty challenging and I worry a lot about what people think and whether I will be accepted.
For this reason I attended very few events before I started speaking at them. I probably attended 2-3 events over almost a decade of entrepreneurship and the idea of actually speaking at an event seemed insane.
But what I realized once I spoke at a few events is, it’s actually a LOT better to attend an event as a speaker than as a participant. I could go into 1,000 reasons why that is the case but for me the main one was just the fact that I could avoid the awkward situations trying to approach people to make small talk and just have other people approach me. It’s very easy to talk to people who come up and ask specific questions after you talk (and it will happen). And when you speak, you enter into this weird zone where everyone thinks you are a lot more important than they would otherwise think.
When I speak at events now I like to hang out with the participants and just be my normal self before I talk. I always get a kick out of it because then after I speak the people will come up and treat you like royalty. It’s crazy. More than once I’ve had people come up to me and apologize for not realizing that I was ‘a speaker’. Seriously!
Because people put you on the pedestal when you speak, attending events is actually a lot easier as a speaker than an attendee.
7. Learn how to do it well
Nothing builds confidence like competence. When I decided to start speaking at the end of 2014, I decided I wanted to do it well. My own style of learning how to do things well is to throw myself in the deep end and lock in a bunch of presentations.
That was great and the ongoing presentations have resulted in a lot of improvements. But I also decided to learn the skills of public speaking. I invested in a Power Presenter Training course with Duane Alley in July this year. It was a 3-day, in-person course that covered everything from tonality, movement, content structure, slides, selling from stage, NLP, Inductions you name it. It was a real eye opener to say the least! I found the training very challenging and confronting but it blew my mind wide open in terms of how to really present well.
Once I did that training, I never looked at public speaking in the same way again. I learned a few things that I have put into practice. But the biggest thing I’ve learned is an appreciation for how complex it is, and how much there is to know. It really blew my mind open seeing how someone like Duane works and when I went back to events that I was speaking at, I noticed all sorts of things in myself and other speakers that I otherwise wouldn’t have had a clue about.
And it made me more confident. I realized that most people who speak at events, don’t go to the trouble of doing this. the more competent I became with my skills, the more confident I got about presenting.
I’ve got so far to go with speaking that I even hesitate to use the word competent, but you would never know how far you have to go if you don’t take the time to look at how the pros do it.
“Nothing builds confidence like competence”. How to get over fear of public speaking. CLICK TO TWEET THIS.
8. Remember what you are worried about won’t happen
Virtually every time I’ve presented, I’ve worked up a worst case scenario in my head about what will happen. The slides won’t work. No one will turn up. I will trip over. I will forget my talk. I will stumble over my words. People won’t laugh. People will laugh. I will freak out and not be able to do it. I will probably wee or shit myself.
At the recent Problogger Conference on the Gold Coast, Jadah Selner from Simple Green Smoothies presented as the first keynote speaker. For the rest of the day all I heard was “Jadah is amazing”. I agreed. Jadah was definitely amazing! The problem was my talk the following day was at the same time as Jadah’s second talk. And what’s more, there was another talk on a similar topic to mine by Christina Butcher and Carly Jacobs, who were also amazing! I was kind of bummed actually cause I wanted to go to both those talks!
I worked myself into a frenzy worrying that no one would turn up to my talk. Every time I heard “Jadah is amazing” on that first day (which was a lot), I nodded and agreed but I freaked out inside because I knew no one would come to my talk. That night I couldn’t sleep and I dreamt I was walking past a big wooden box full of tigers. It was 3.9m high and I knew that Tigers could jump a lot higher than that. I thought when I walked past, the tigers would jump out and maul me.
It was kinda weird, but scary cause in dreamland you don’t worry about whether things are realistic.
As it turned out, in my dream the tigers didn’t jump out. They just stayed there.
My talk at Problogger was the best one I’ve done. I had a full room of 200 people, the same number that attended both other talks.
I should have known, because I’d learned this lesson 9 years earlier.
Remember that ElNet conference I freaked out about for a year beforehand and I almost died getting to? For that year I couldn’t possibly imagine myself presenting to hundreds of people, how would that even happen? Well I walked into the event and there were 20 people there, dressed casually sitting around a table. I didn’t even have to stand up for my presentation! I ran through my slides like I was having a meeting at work, like I did every other day. It went well. 20 minutes later it was done.
So why does it suck?
After I spoke at that ElNet conference I felt an enormous sense of relief and satisfaction. It wasn’t quite the Tony Robbins style keynote I’d manufactured in my brain but still, I had spoken at a conference! I was pumped!
I got the same feeling at WordCamp 9 years later, the immense relief and the afterglow of presenting was amazing. The same thing happened when I spoke at Superfast Business Live in Sydney, Tropical Think Tank in the Philippines, DCBKK in Bangkok, Social Media Day on the Gold Coast, The Digital Summit in Brisbane and Problogger on the Gold Coast.
Yesterday when I spoke at the Digital Summit, I wasn’t nervous. But I did my talk, then I left to go to another meeting and felt nothing. It went well, I enjoyed it, it was well received but it was business as usual. I didn’t get that same euphoric feeling I had gotten from my previous engagements. And that kinda sucks.
So if you are nervous about speaking, remember that when you finish your talk you will get an equally powerful positive flow of elation. Enjoy the nerves, because once they go, the elation goes as well.