Public Speaking: Practice Makes Perfect (or at least slightly less scary)

It’s feared more than spiders, heights, and Jello molds. Some would actually rather be dead than do it.

Amazingly, public speaking is more frightening to people than going an entire night without cable TV.

And that’s what I was doing last week. I rarely talk about my “other” job, but after eight months of being self-employed, I think it’s time.

I used to work for the state government as a nurse surveyor. This meant that I got to visit home health agencies, hospices and even a few hospitals to evaluate their compliance with state and federal regulations. We’ll just say nobody was happy when I walked through the front door.

Now, I help the same companies that I used to scrutinize. I provide training and education on how to interpret and comply with all those federal and state requirements. This means that on a monthly basis I give presentations. In front of people. For like hours.

This is how I felt about public speaking in college:

Public Speaking Socially Awkward penguin

Um, I may have done this once. Or twice.

Socially awkward penguin public speaking

Yes, socially awkward penguin, I understand. I contemplated doing this.

public speaking anxiety cat

Luckily, I never had to resort to this. I found a loophole 🙂

And that feeling stayed with me into adulthood, although it lessened over time. Soon, I was able to verbalize my thoughts in front of a group of five or ten people without this happening:

Public speaking brain

But a four hour presentation in front of twenty or so strangers? Hmmm…. Maybe that coffin doesn’t look so bad.

My first presentation brought on some nerves. To help, my body decided to recruit my sympathetic nervous system, which resulted in:

Nausea – I knew those three bites of toast would come back to haunt me

Tachycardia – The fancy word for a fast heart rate

Cotton mouth – I had no idea my tongue could be this dry

Trembling hands – We’ll just forget about using the laser pointer

The need to pee every five minutes – Now I know what it’s like to be my mom

And pretty much the overall sensation that I was going to die.

Thanks, body. That really helped create the illusion that I was confident and composed.

Now, eight months later, I am more confident and composed.

sponge bob public speaking

Just like Sponge Bob

I still get a little jittery before each presentation, but instead of feeling like my heart might explode for the full four hours, I go through the following:

-It’s almost time to start the presentation. Everyone is looking at me. Wow, my heart really can beat 200 times per minute. Maybe I should go throw up really quick. Or just pee. I think I have to pee again.

-Wow, I’m already 30 minutes in. And I’m rockin’ it. Look they’re laughing at my jokes. They’re asking questions. They’re nodding like they understand. I’m awesome!

-Ugh. We’re only two hours into this thing. Is that person sleeping? Yes, I think they’re sleeping. I’m boring them. Better say something funny.

-Says something funny. Everyone laughs. They all go back to sleep. And I don’t take it personally.

-We only have a half hour left. I can do this. Maybe I need some caffeine? Where’s that racing heart beat? I think I need that again. A little shot of adrenaline just might spruce up the last bit of this presentation. Ugh. Body, come on. You were so generous with it earlier.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is this public speaking thing does get better. The more I do it, the easier it becomes. I almost even like it sometimes. Crazy, huh?

As a side note: My cousin and I are attending our first writing conference this weekend and we’re planning to read the first page of our novels. Out loud. To an agent. And an audience. I have a feeling that pesky sympathetic nervous system will be kicking in again.

As another side note: My cat was sitting on my mouse the whole time I was writing this and she bit my hand every time I tried to use it. But don’t worry – she hardly has any teeth left.

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46 thoughts on “Public Speaking: Practice Makes Perfect (or at least slightly less scary)

  1. Logan Windram says:

    I like to keep in mind that everybody in that audience is just glad it’s not them… Or if it was in school, everybody was nervous and almost no one cared- besides when it was their turn. The first minute or two is downright agony, but once you get passed that, it’s all gravy.

    • jennifer Windram says:

      Very true. Most people would rather have a fork jammed in their eye, than have to give a presentation. This helps me too and it’s something I tell people who are nervous about public speaking.

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    Giving presentations used to horrify me, but as you point out, over time it becomes easier. The heart races less; the voice shakes less. I’ve found the key is preparation, which, of course, involves a lot of time. I’ll run through a presentation many times before I actually give it. On the other hand, I’ve never had to give one more than an hour long. Four hours? Yikes. After surviving that, your agent pitch will seem easy! Good luck with it, by the way. Very exciting!

    • jennifer Windram says:

      Yes – preparation is very important. I’m way less nervous when discussing topics I know front and back, so I try to begin with these. I practice a lot too. When I was preparing for my first of these trainings, I even taped pictures of people’s faces from magazines on the walls to practice making eye contact!

  3. agross144 says:

    Every part of this post was fantastic. I know you lead great, informative talks – glad to hear the consulting gigs are picking up.

    Which writer’s conference are you going to?

    • jennifer Windram says:

      Anne! I’ve missed you! Yes, things are picking up, but it still comes in waves.

      We’re going to the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs. We even get to dress up in Steampunk costumes one night – I’ve already got my mini top hat ready to go 🙂

  4. fudgeandpoppy says:

    I used to hate talking in front of people. As a kid I had to do a couple of assemblies in front of my whole school. The first one was at primary school when I was about 8 or 9 reading a poem about Henry VIII and his Six Wives, I was picked by my class as being the best at reading aloud. I don’t think I looked over the book once whilst reading it out. I was petrified!
    Then the second one was in my secondary school when I was about 13 – had to read something out about King Canute casting back the waves but I was losing my voice so kept croaking and coughing and apologising, turning a very vivid shade of beetroot. Then the third one was when I was about the same age as part of my German class doing something about Europe, I was the German footballer Jurgen Klinsmann and had to jump off the stage, run down the middle of the hall and do a power slide through a load of boxes meant to signify the Berlin Wall. (I might add this was actually my idea…) I whacked my arm on a load of chairs as I went, got up and waltzed out of the hall as if I did that sort of thing every day. Most people thought I was a total loon.
    It was only as an adult through work that I began to feel a bit more confident about talking in front of others, contributing in meetings that sort of thing. Then while working at one place my best friend Dom and I started to do workshops about researching family trees, so that meant talking to a bunch of people who were there to actually listen to me speak. The first few minutes I was always a bit shaky and nervous but after a while they were a breeze and I loved it.
    Then a couple of years ago I got third prize in a local poetry competition and had to read my poem out in front of people, that was a little nerve racking but I managed it OK, just about, with a bit of blushes and almost choking on my own saliva…

    • jennifer Windram says:

      Yes, I had very similar experiences (well, except for the power slide). My nerves started to appear in middle school and didn’t really start to improve until my early thirties.

      It is a different experience when people are actually coming to hear you speak, instead of a group of kids forced to listen to your presentation or your reading of a poem about Henry VIII. It adds an additional layer of pressure – not only do I have to perform, but I don’t want to disappoint them.

      Congrats on the poetry competition. Reading something that is so personal would be scary too. And I can’t imagine having too much saliva. I’m always sucking on mints and drinking gallons of water to keep my mouth moist!

  5. navigator1965 says:

    My Dad had me read in church when I was a kid, so I’d learn to get over fear of this at an early age. Practice does make perfect. The biggest trick is to appear confident. This is literally 90% of the battle. If you exude quiet confidence, your audience picks up on the cues and accepts what you’re telling them.

    Good for you.

    • jennifer Windram says:

      I totally agree with appearing confident. I tell myself that over and over again and it really does work. No one else realizes just how nervous you are. I also try to sound really interested in what I’m saying, I think it makes the audience feel more interested and engaged.

      • navigator1965 says:

        You’ve got it cased. Oh, don’t forget this pearl of wisdom from the Royal Canadian Air Force, when it comes to presentations: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with B.S.”

  6. Y. Zheng says:

    I feel absolutely terrified of speaking in front of a group because I’m always scared that people will think I don’t know what I’m talking about. So each time I have to give a presentation, 5 minutes before I have to go up there, my hands would tremble worse than some 90-year-old trying to make it from the kitchen to the living room. In the end, I think it’s just a matter of practice and making the audience think you’re confident about the information you’re presenting.

    • jennifer Windram says:

      Yes, that has been part of my battle with these presentations: people are paying to hear me speak – what if I disappoint them, what if I mess up and get my facts wrong, what if they don’t learn anything?

      And you’re right, confidence is a huge factor: eye contact, strong voice, taking command of the room. It all helps. And after awhile, I think those little shots of adrenaline actually help make the presentation better. I feel more on top of my game in the beginning when I’m a little nervous, versus the end of the presentation when I’m tired and no longer nervous.

  7. Marcy says:

    I can’t imagine me ever being comfortable talking before a large group. To this day, when I get called for Jury Duty and they just go through the potential jurors asking a few simple questions, I feel as if my heart will beat through my eardrums and my voice sounds all shaky. I hate being this afraid to talk out loud. Good for you overcoming this.

  8. Trent Lewin says:

    I was dreadfully afraid of public speaking in school. Horribly afraid. I still remember those kids who were more scared than I was, when it came time to speech day… they had tape recorded their speeches and sat with their heads tucked as the tape recorder played. I felt lousy about it, still do. I forced myself to speak in front of people eventually, and the more I did it, the more comfortable it become, and honestly, now I crave it. I want people watching me. Yes, I am an attention whore (I’m sure my blog proves that). But I’m okay with it. I like it this way.

  9. heatherbcosta says:

    Public speaking is hard, but on the rare occasions that I am forced to do it, I tend to just wing it and use my rapier wit and a large dollop of a bravado that I don’t really feel to hide the fact that I’m actually wetting myself about getting up in front of a bunch of people and talking at/to them 🙂

  10. gpeynon says:

    I don’t know what you’re so worried about, it’s just like blogging…but to a live audience…without the capacity to edit…or the safety of the internet…with the added pressure of time constraints…and…ok, ok. It’s not just like blogging; good for you to have the courage.

  11. librarylady says:

    One thing I appreciate about the church I belong to is that you get comfortable with public speaking at an early age – even the four year olds give talks (with lots of help) in their Sunday school classes. Unfortunately that didn’t help me since I didn’t join until I was 18. We don’t have a paid clergy, so every one takes turns giving inspirational talks and teaching classes. While I thought I’d keel over and die the first few times, I actually kind of enjoy it now. Nothing like being forced out of your comfort zone. It sounds like you have a nice little business going there.

    • jennifer Windram says:

      I’m impressed by how many of my blogging friends have worked through their issues with public speaking. I guess writers aren’t as introverted as we thought 🙂

      I totally agree about getting out of your comfort zone. I think that’s been one of the best things about being self employed. The business waxes and wanes and sometimes it’s more work than I anticipated, but I’ve pushed myself and grown in ways that wouldn’t have happened had I stayed at my 9 to 5 job.

  12. Jim Lawlor says:

    Four hours! That’s a very long speaking shift (even with breaks). I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not really public ‘speaking’ at all – each time you stand up, it’s actually a public ‘performance.’

      • Jim Lawlor says:

        My tuppenceworth…. I don’t know if you can access this in your job – it’s an old paper, but a good one – http://bit.ly/1iiTdNe Also, if you are doing a long presentation, look at it in terms of 30 to 50 min segments. Break it up with something like youtube clips or tedtalks, but not long ones, and don’t overdo it. Even a Dilbert or something can bookend a section. If you can find an artefact – pass it around – people love handling stuff. If you have to hand out material, take the time to discuss it as you pass it around – nothing critical until they all have it in front of them. And enjoy yourself! If you do, mostly they will.

        • jennifer Windram says:

          Thanks for the great tips! I just got back from my writers conference and have been thinking of ways to use speaking engagements to promote my fiction. Your tips are perfect. I will work them into my day job and hopefully future events 🙂

  13. M. C. Dulac says:

    Ha ha! So true. I can understand that a lot of our fears go back to cave man days (fight or flight, being chased by mammoths etc) but I don’t understand why public speaking creates such a physical fear! I applaud you for being able to speak for four hours!

    Good luck at the writer’s conference! You’ll be fabulous. Just pretend you’re Libby! 😉

    • jennifer Windram says:

      It’s weird, right? I read something about needing to be part of the group for survival in the caveman days. So, you didn’t want to do anything that got you kicked out, or disliked. Who knows…

      Thanks. We had an awesome time! I wish I would have thought about the Libby thing while I was there. That would have been a cool frame of mind to be in 🙂

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