Shyness and Public Speaking
The two are not mutually exclusive.
I had a fear of public speaking for a long time. My experiences were largely negative, with teachers forcing me to read to the class to help me “come out of my shell.” This only forced me further into my shell as my classmates were unsupportive. My voice would shake and I would stutter uncontrollably. They found this hilarious but still, teachers kept calling on me to speak in front of the class.
My worst memory of public speaking was when I was seventeen years old. I was studying Fine Art and a professional artist had come to visit the class. I was one of three students selected to present my work to him. As I was walking to the front of the class to do my presentation, I heard someone laugh “be careful your voice doesn’t shake” followed by other people giggling. My presentation was a disaster. The artist didn’t mind and clearly felt sorry for me. But his pity made me feel worse.
My fear of public speaking infected other areas of my life. I found it hard to initiate a conversation one to one, especially with people I didn’t know. I tried my best to avoid interacting with strangers but when most people are strangers this is tricky. Paying for things in a shop, answering the phone, saying excuse me if someone was in my way, and being able to walk in public without looking at the ground were all impossible.
With a lot of hard work, I managed to bring my social anxiety levels down, but I still couldn’t speak in front of a group of people. This meant I was often left behind in life as I couldn’t put myself forward and make people notice me. I would dread team meetings at work in case I was called on to speak in front of everyone. But at the same time, I felt like I was missing out. I had so many ideas but they would never be heard. I felt like I was trapped inside myself and it was so painful.
It has been an uphill struggle but now I can speak in front of groups of people. In fact, my job requires me to deliver courses. Often these courses are fully booked. I never thought this could be possible for someone like me.
One of my pet peeves is that people limit the potential of shy people. They see that they are struggling and assume they know what they are and are not capable of. This further discourages the shy person from challenging their anxiety.
I’m shy and I do far more things that challenge my anxiety than non-shy people. And I fully believe other shy people can do the same. They just need to be told they can do things like public speaking. It might be harder for them, but it doesn’t mean they won’t be good at it.
This is what I learned on my journey from shrinking violet who couldn’t even speak to cashiers to shrinking violet who can speak in front of large groups of people.
Don’t run before you can walk. If you can’t interact with a cashier in a shop then you won’t be able to speak in front of a group of people.
Making a phone call, answering a phone call, asking for help in a shop, interacting with cashiers, being able to tell a waitress what my order was, and introducing myself to new people were all skills I had to learn before I could even think about public speaking.
I still haven’t mastered these skills and I have bad days from time to time. But having a basic grasp of how to do these things is so important. Each time I was able to order my own food or say hi to a person I didn’t know, the more my confidence grew.
The more you do, the more you prove to yourself you are more capable than you gave yourself credit for.
Public speaking is a skill
Although some people may have a natural personality that makes public speaking easier, it’s still a skill you have to learn. And with all new skills, you can’t expect to master it straight away.
Even very outgoing people can struggle with public speaking. It’s not just about being confident and talking a lot. You need to be engaging and get people to be interested in what you are saying. You need to get the balance between being concise but making people feel like they got enough information.
Anyone can be good at public speaking if they practice. Even shy people.
As a shy person, I used to feel like I needed to be someone else in order to be able to do things that were difficult. I would try to copy people that seemed confident. But with public speaking, it’s important to be yourself.
If you are already nervous, putting pressure on yourself to be someone else won’t help. And the people you are speaking to will be able to tell you are not genuine. It’s easier to engage an audience if you are being authentic.
Learning to be myself during public speaking helped me to like myself more. Each time I do it, I heal from past experiences where my shyness was made fun of.
It’s an ongoing process
I made the mistake of doing public speaking once and thinking “Yay! I’m cured!” But when I had to do it again, too much time had passed and I found it so difficult.
It’s very easy to become deskilled and fall into the trap of avoidance. It’s okay to feel nervous about public speaking, even if you have done it many times. In fact, it’s perfectly normal. But don’t let your nervousness make you think you can’t do it.
It’s a good idea to practice speaking in front of people on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean that you have to get on stage and speak in front of hundreds of people every day. You could contribute to a team meeting at work, for example. Try to push yourself out of your comfort zone in small ways. All these little steps get you closer to feeling more confident about public speaking.
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
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