Slalom Denver
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3 lessons that changed my relationship with public speaking

It was a dark and stormy night. The wind whipped through the trees. Inside the auditorium, we heard the collision of the warrior-like drops with the roof. This collision mirrored what was happening in my chest. Each heart beat became more thunderous. I stared down at the floor; my mind began to wander to another place.

The stage director grabbed me and whispered, “Go. It’s your turn.”

I looked at her in horror. I couldn’t classify what I was feeling at the time. Now I know the term is stage fright. It was something I never wanted to experience again.

There I stood on the auditorium stage staring into a pitch black audience. I looked straight up into the stage lights. Feeling blinded, I stumbled across the stage to the lead actor. He was poised magnanimously in stark contrast to my bumbling figure. I tried to remember my line. Think. Think. Think. The lead actor stared at me with a fire in his eyes.

Those eyes whipped my memory into shape. I blurted out my only line: “Sir, may I please have some?”

He responded: “Why yes, dear maiden. Who else needs some more?” I scurried off the stage, feeling ashamed I couldn’t remember my one line.

After the show, my mom came up and said: “I’m so proud of you! That was incredible.” I paused. She’s my mother. She believes everything I do is great, so naturally, I assumed that everyone else besides my mother felt about the my performance the way I felt — a failure. I was five years old at the time. I had wanted that lead role, but how on earth would I ever succeed if I couldn’t even remember my one line.

Somehow, she read my mind. She assured me that I did great, repeatedly. I tried my absolute hardest to maintain my suspicious glare of her compliments. Despite my attempt, a smile crept onto my face.

This was the first of many experiences with stage fright. At this time in my life, it was the stage that actually caused the fright. In later years, the stage would give way to self-doubt and I would have to find a way to instill that feeling of self-worth my mother gave to me that night.

Lesson 1 to overcoming stage-fright: Find your support system. For me, it was my mother. She found a way to make me feel supported despite how miserably I thought I failed. Those are the people who will continue to encourage you to get back up on that stage and convince you to try and try and try for the lead role.

Fast-forward to 2013. I did yoga teacher training and to graduate, we had to teach a class in front of 20 people.

I went to the front of the class, introduced myself, and then quickly put everyone in child’s pose. This is a pose where if you aren’t familiar with it, on first glance can look like a bunch of people praying. I placed people here because I simply did not want people to look at me. If they did this pose, they physically could not see me. (Perfect!) I thought that if no one looked at me, I would be able to clearly deliver a poignant message articulately.

I know now that this self-doubt. For me, it comes up when people look at me. After many years of teaching, I learned that putting people in child’s pose to start can close them off to being receptive to my words. If participants aren’t to see me or see my hands while they are in a very vulnerable position, it can cause anxiety. I also learned that making eye contact allows a connection.

I continued to refine my teaching style and in doing so, explored my own self-doubt. My self-doubt was cast from the fear that I wasn’t good enough. Because of this fear, I had a hard-time making eye-contact with others. I don’t want to see them because I don’t them to see me.

Layer by layer of exploration, I learned that teaching a class wasn’t about memorizing a sequence or having all the right cues or delivering some eloquent message to students. It was about showing up authentically through my words and connecting with people through my body language — eye-contact and smiles. It turned out too that a lot of my students shared self-doubt. They too felt inadequate and not good enough. When I shared my story, it fostered an empowered community with vulnerability at the center.

Before each class now, I check in with myself — How am I feeling today?

  • Do I feel like talking about the moon and earth? Yes. Then I say something like this: Mercury is in retrograde and that excuses my bad hair day. But really, this time can cause strange happenings so take extra time for yourself, like you are by coming to this class! Let’s get started.
  • Do I feel like talking about the moon and earth? No. Then I say something like this: Let’s just be here as humans and do some poses where we look like pretzels or broken pretzels and find movement in our bodies. Ready….go!

Lesson 2 to overcoming stage-fright: Be authentic and meet yourself where you are. I’ve found it’s much better to be honest with yourself. People have a good sense of the truth and can tell when you aren’t being truthful to them or to yourself.

Fast-forward to 2019. This has been my year of public speaking. Due to the mic’s low batteries, I slightly yelled a maid of honor speech at my best friend’s wedding. I did a lightning talk at UX STRAT where I had 20 minutes to prepare a deck and present on it. I was also a panelist for Denver Startup Week where about 250 people signed up for the event.

These were all very different experiences, and yet the same fears arose each time: Why would people want to hear my message? Why do I matter? Worse. What if they believe I matter? What if I actually do matter? What if I actually influence people? What if my words are powerful beyond belief?

I found that my greatest fear in public speaking was not about people staring at me. It was when I could tell they were engaged with my words, when I could feel my words making an impact. That’s when my voice began to shake. That’s when all those false notions middle school bullies placed into my head arose. That’s when I lost confidence.

That little voice inside my head grew louder, saying: You’re not good enough. Your words don’t matter. People aren’t going to listen to you. You can’t make an impact.

It was like fireworks. One negative thought after the next.

Then, as cliche as this sounds, I remembered what I tell my first-time yoga students when they are in savasana. Savasana is Sanskrit for corpse pose. It is a pose that requires you to be still in the body and mind. When you’re asked to lie there in silence, it’s really hard to stop the thoughts. Many students think about grocery lists, where they’re going to eat, or tap their fingers impatiently. I remind them: When your mind starts to wander, come back to your breath. Focus on the length of the inhale and the length of the exhale. Try for a six-count inhale and a six-count exhale.

I took a breath. Then another that’s just a little longer. The calm breath soothed my heart rate. My voice became even.

Inhale. Exhale.

I found someone in the audience. I gazed at her. She wasn’t on stage. She wasn’t nervous. She was a human being sitting there. Holy cow. Not only was she sitting there, she actually was engaged with what I was saying, with my words! My eyes glimmered with excitement. I am powerful and I can make an impact. I repeated those words like my mother did when I was five. The only difference between now and then was that I believed these words.

Lesson 3 to overcoming stage-fright: You are a badass and you are enough. I believe that each person has the ability to inspire others with words. Use them wisely.

Each of the aforementioned lessons seem simple on the surface. (Although, that’s what I said about gardening. It turns out, gardening is not simple and requires consistent nurturing.)

Lesson 1 to overcoming stage-fright: Find your support system.

It was easy to find my personal support system. It was much more difficult to find my professional support system.

I didn’t truly understand the difference until I had a boss who was willing to engage in radical candor. She provided regular feedback that wasn’t always pleasant to hear but helped me grow exponentially. For example, one day, my boss provided feedback that my eagerness to take on a wide variety of tasks that were unrelated to my professional growth could come off as a lack of direction. If I wanted to do everything, then I couldn’t become an expert at anything. It was really hard to hear that, yet it helped me focus my career path.

On the other hand, my personal support system encouraged me to follow my dreams and slow down. Be methodological in where I want to go rather than jumping two feet in at the first thing that look appealing. My professional support system encouraged me to hone my craft while my personal support system lifted me up to find that craft. Both would sit in the front row at a talk I gave. :)

Lesson 2 to overcoming stage-fright: Be authentic and meet yourself where you are.

It took me a few years as a professional to understand the balance between authenticity and professionalism. When I say meet yourself where you are, I don’t mean admitting that you may be hungover or that you recently went through a divorce. It’s more about an internal check-in and understanding what you need before you try to serve others publicly or privately. It may look something like this.

I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. My spouse and I fought and I didn’t feel great about where we left off. In that scenario, showing up authentically can mean that during your speech, you make a joke about the coffee not kicking in. The personal reason you didn’t get sleep is where I’d advise you set a boundary.

Lesson 3 to overcoming stage-fright: You are a badass and you are enough.

Marianna Williamson says:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.

We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?

I found that belief in myself began in the utmost dark and stormy nights where my heart threatened to pound right out of my chest. What was inside of me was more violent than the storm. On that night, I chose to give into those voices inside my head. On future nights with those three lessons, I would choose to give into self-worth, empowerment, and allowing my words to influence others.



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Sophie Shrimpton

Product Designer who is passionate about eliminating barriers to access.