How I sucked it up, got over my fear, and became really good at public speaking

I haven’t always enjoyed giving speaking presentations. Far from it, in fact.

In my late teens, my best friend and I applied for – and won – slots to go to a camp that promised to expose us to a variety of enriching experiences.

The only thing I clearly remember about that camp was that the first session on the agenda for Wednesday morning was titled “public speaking.” So uncomfortable was I with the concept of public speaking that the thought of even being in a room where public speaking was being discussed completely freaked me out. So I stayed in bed and pretended to be sick most of that Wednesday.

My bestie, Melanie, the good-natured extrovert, came bounding into the dorm at the end of the day, excited to report that she had been asked to act out putting on a pair of stockings. I’ll admit, that actually didn’t sound too bad, but if you had told me then, at 16 years of age, that I would one day make my living from public speaking – I think my heart would have stopped beating.

It has been reported that people are more afraid of public speaking than of death. While it may sound like an exaggeration, I can honestly say that my 16 year old self can completely relate to that statement.

Around that time, my Dad had told me “If you can speak well and write well, people will assume you’re an expert.”

The idea of being an expert intrigued me, and I wanted to be one so badly I realized that, if that was what it was going to take, I would one day have to overcome my fear of public speaking.

If there was a point in my life when I stopped avoiding public speaking, I think it must have come in my mid twenties. That was when I left my corporate career and started a little coaching business. I soon realized that the other coaches I admired, the ones I gravitated toward, had great platform skills and the ability to command an audience.

Eventually I sucked it up and joined Toastmasters, and despite the clammy hands and racing pulse that accompanied each attempt, I stuck with it. My Toastmasters group was very supportive, and I receive lots of praise and positive reinforcement along with actionable feedback on how to improve. Instinctively I knew that everything I wanted to achieve in my career would come a whole lot easier if I could speak in front of groups. I made a pact with myself to say “yes” to every speaking opportunity, no matter how big or small.

Fast forward to my early thirties: I’m finally a women’s leadership coach. It’s the night before my first really big speaking gig, for the women’s leadership conference at a big Wall Street firm. They clearly have mistaken me for someone else, and hired me anyway.

I barely slept for the two nights before the event. I can remember thinking, as I lay awake late one night, that if I died of stress (which seemed entirely possible) well, at least I wouldn’t have to give the presentation. But somehow, though I barely slept, and although half the buttons fell off the ridiculously expensive pantsuit I’d bought for the occasion (thank goodness for those little hotel sewing kits!) I somehow managed to get through it.

Wooh! The adrenaline payoff was addictive, and I pledged to remember that no matter how stressful the buildup, the payoff was worth it.

Ten years later, I make my living from delivering workshops, webinars, and keynotes. I am as comfortable speaking to six hundred people as I am speaking to six. (But don’t ask me to “work the room” during the cocktail hour after I’ve delivered a keynote. Unlike my teenage BFF Melanie, I’m still an introvert at heart!)

Public speaking won’t kill you. (I promise!) And here’s another promise I can make with confidence: to anyone who thinks that developing public speaking skills will enhance your career – it most definitely will.

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Jo Miller

A leading authority on women’s leadership, Jo Miller is a sought-after, dynamic, and engaging speaker, delivering more than 70 speaking presentations annually to audiences of up to 1,200 women. Her expertise lies in helping women lead, climb, and thrive in their corporate careers. Jo has traveled widely in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East to deliver keynotes and teach workshops for women’s leadership conferences, women’s professional associations, and Fortune 1000 corporate women’s initiatives. Jo is CEO of leadership development, consulting and research firm Be Leaderly. Learn more about her speaking engagements at www.JoMiller.net and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

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