In this introduction to, and first episode of The A-Ha! Method Podcast, hosts Gabe Zichermann and Dayna Gowan talk through their own different paths to public speaking and the challenges they faced along the way. We’ll also look at why public speaking can be so hard for people – even those who are exceptionally good at other kinds of communication.
Over the past 7 years, I have been working to overcome my gripping and limiting fear of public speaking. After pushing myself out of my comfort zone and making public speaking improvement a priority, I have found that the benefits of liking and, dare I say, even loving public speaking instead of hating and fearing it are ABSOLUTELY LIFE CHANGING! Here is my story.
Face turning bright red like a tomato.
Mind going blank and having no idea what I am saying.
All I want to do is get the presentation over with and sit back down where no one can see me.
That is how I felt during every presentation and speech before I conquered my fear of public speaking.
I always knew I wasn’t a good speaker and presenter – throughout middle school, high school, college, grad school. It just wasn’t my thing. I always struggled with it anytime I had to get in front of a room, and therefore, I hated it and always got nervous anytime a presentation project was mentioned in one of my classes. I had so many theories as to why I wasn’t good at it. For example: I thought I just wasn’t born with this natural ability to speak in front of a crowd like others were. I also thought maybe I would suddenly find this magical confidence at age 35. Why 35? I don’t know, but in my mid-20’s it seemed like an age where I hoped I would stop caring what others thought and be comfortable in my skin. No matter what I did, this fear and anxiety followed me from school projects to my professional life, and I finally had enough.
Where this fear all started
D.A.R.E. Graduation in 5th grade
The D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program involved police officers going to schools and teaching students about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and violence. Their main message, at least in 1998, was to just say “NO!” to all these substances, especially marijuana – a gateway drug to all the other drugs out there. (I’ll save my commentary on that line of thinking for another time.)
After students completed the D.A.R.E. graduation curriculum, they would hold a Graduation Ceremony where students had to say “NO!” to Drugs in front of their parents and family members. I gave it everything I had when I auditioned for the emcee role for the Graduation Ceremony, and I got it! I was probably the only one who tried out for the role, but I was still so excited!
Then the day came for the event. Armed with my index cards in hand, I got up to the microphone in front of the audience, and I froze! I could feel all the eyes on me, the silence was killer, and my hands and legs started shaking uncontrollably. I got terrible, awful stage fright, and I was so upset! This is my first memory of feeling this debilitating stage fright and anxiousness.
I blame D.A.R.E. for all my public speaking woes — not really, but it feels good to have someone else to blame for this problem. Because of the D.A.R.E. program, I struggled for 15 years with addiction. I was addicted… to saying “NO!” to public speaking. That’s my terrible joke, and I am sticking to it.
Since that terrifying time up on stage in 5th grade, I STRUGGLED with public speaking. Middle school, high school, college, grad school – every time I had to give a presentation, I hated it. Even doing introductions on the first day of class had my heart feeling like it was going to pump out of my chest. “Hi, my name is Dayna LeBlanc, and I am taking this course…because it’s required.” Why was that so hard to say??
I dreaded Speech 101 in college, but I luckily made it through that class with an A because only a percentage of the grade was actually based on your speaking ability. My ability to write outlines, complete projects, and study for tests was just fine. My first speech in Speech 101 class was a 4-minute speech on something that has influenced you. I decided to talk about my experience as a senior in high school in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit — a topic I could for sure find four minutes worth of material to talk about. Four minutes seemed like an eternity to me, but when I got up to speak, I ignored my whole outline, went off script (aka rambled), and I ended up talking for 11.5 minutes. There were no timing lights to tell me I was way over time, only the slowly dropping faces of my classmates, who were shocked and overwhelmed at this long, run-on sentence of a story. I got a B+ on the assignment, most likely because the instructor either felt bad for the subject matter of my speech or me as the speaker or both.
My Last Straw Moment
I thought this was a problem that would just plague me in school — maybe I just got nervous in front of my peers, despite the many pep talks I would give myself. “I don’t care what they think about me. I am going to get up and give this presentation and not care at all what they think,” I would tell myself before my presentations. Maybe I didn’t really care what they thought of me, but when I got up in front of them, I sure worried if they could tell how nervous I was. I thought when I got out into the real world that I would be fine — completely poised and professional. But this theory was quickly proven wrong.
Three months into getting my dream job as an Employee Wellness Coordinator at a well-known insurance company in South Carolina, I had to give a wellness presentation to our HR department. The presentation was about Stress Management, and I worked for many days on prepping the slides and my talking points. The day of the presentation, I ran into my manager beforehand, and he told me the HR manager for the group I was presenting to was a Distinguished Toastmaster. I had no idea what that was, but I was 100x more intimidated after that. The pre-speech “I’m not nervous at all” pep talk went out the window, and I became overwhelmed with nerves.
During the presentation, I committed all the big public speaking blunders:
I didn’t introduce myself or my co-worker who came with me, and we were both new to the company,
I talked about how nervous I was — how fitting for a stress management presentation,
And I went way over time – about 15-20 minutes over.
In hindsight, no one died and probably no one who attended that presentation, except for me, remembers how bad it was, but that was the last straw.
After the presentation, I went back to my office, ran to the bathroom and cried. I was so upset that this fear and anxiety of public speaking had followed me from school to my professional life. I was so tired of not getting my message across when presenting and feeling terrible about my performance afterwards. I decided something had to change. I had to get over this crippling fear, for the sake of my career and my well-being.
How I Conquered My Fear
I thought about the Distinguished Toastmaster title — whatever that meant — and I decided to look up Toastmasters. Fortunately, my company had a corporate Toastmasters club that met every Thursday during lunchtime, so I decided to check it out. I visited as a guest for a month or so, and then in October 2014, I made it official and joined as a member. My department paid for my membership, which was nice and supportive. I gave my Icebreaker speech a few weeks after joining. I talked about 2 things that influenced me throughout my life — no, not Hurricane Katrina this time, that was my 2nd speech topic — I talked about my love for volleyball and running. I had nine umms and uhhhs, relied fully on my notes, used lots of unnecessary hand gestures, had a red blotchy face and neck afterwards, and I had to rush my conclusion to stay within timeframe, but I got through it. And no crying in the bathroom afterwards at least!
I gave at least one speech a month, and in June 2015, I had given 10 speeches to reach my Competent Communicator designation. By that 10th speech, I had ZERO filler words, index cards that I didn’t end up using, purposeful movements, and a polished, effective conclusion. I had really pushed myself to get up there and give these speeches, and I found that I enjoyed it, even though I still struggled with it. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was a whole lot better than when I started.
My Public Speaking Journey
Six and a half years later, I am still in Toastmasters, and I am enjoying getting to share my stories and practice my content. I also really enjoy hearing others share their stories. In this time, I have accomplished so many goals I NEVER thought I would reach. I got my Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) designation, meaning I gave over 50 speeches and served in leadership roles, and it took me about five years to do that.
I also competed in contests, which is something I never thought I would do. When I watched the World Championship of Public Speaking Finals as a new Toastmaster, I would think, “I could never do that!” Although I haven’t reached the Finals (yet), I have competed in smaller level contests and won! I won 2nd place in the District 58 Evaluation Contest in 2017, which meant I had to give a 2-3-minute evaluation of a speech. The fact that I am competing and putting myself through these contests is such a win in itself, I don’t really care what place I get, although it is nice to win every now and then.
I also served in leadership roles within my clubs, and I have now served as Club President and other roles for three different clubs. When I was Club President for the first time in 2017-2018, I could see my newfound leadership skills and confidence slowly start to transfer from my Toastmaster meetings to my professional work. I started speaking up in meetings more and advocating for myself and my needs as an employee and also the needs of the department. I started to be viewed as a leader within my department, even though I didn’t have the manager or supervisor title.
It truly is life changing to not be afraid of public speaking or being put on the spot. I don’t second-guess myself (as much) anymore, and I am no longer surprised by this confident person (me!) speaking up and leading meetings. I have embraced this confidence level I never thought I would have, and I have allowed it to take me to new heights — all before the age of 35 too! Another one of my why-I’m-so-bad-at-public-speaking theories now disproven. I have now tried things I never thought I would be able to do, such as lead conference calls and now video calls effectively, give speeches at weddings and funerals, take improv classes, take sketch writing classes, and much more!
I wish I could say the nerves are completely gone and exterminated, but they still show up every now and again. I get upset when the nerves creep into my speeches, but I am much more in control now of my speaking abilities.
I have lots of dreams and goals — I am going to start giving paid presentations as a side business, and I want to continue getting better at improv and sketch writing. It’s absolutely mind boggling how the girl who got so nervous at any mention of a speech or having to speak in front of a crowd now wants to do it as a career. And the fun comedy outlets would never have happened without my firm public speaking foundation and confidence to throw myself into a challenge and try something new. The sky is the limit here, and the only person who can hold me back from achieving my goals is me.
Does public speaking make you nervous?
I often don’t believe it when someone else says it, but it’s so true in this instance – “If I can conquer my fear of public speaking, you can too!” It takes a lot of courage to step outside your comfort zone and make public speaking improvement a priority, but when you do, you will find more than just growth. You will find life-changing confidence that you never thought you would have in your wildest dreams. This new confidence can take you to new heights in your job, your business, and your life if you let it. And this newfound confidence can come at any age too!
There are many ways to overcome your fears of public speaking, and the most important thing is to find the way that works best for you. Toastmasters helped me a ton, but there is a certain level of commitment that takes a lot of time to see results, so it doesn’t work for everyone. If you need quick help overcoming your fears and improving your public speaking skills, check out the online course “Public Speaking in a Time of Distraction: The A-Ha! Method” by award-winning instructor Gabe Zichermann.
We will soon start offering community sessions for course participants to practice their presentations and receive feedback – both helping to overcome those fears and make their presentations and pitches more effective. You can take the course at your leisure and put the included resources to use when you need them the most. Sign up for this helpful professional speaking course today!