First appeared in Connections magazine.
Speaking in public is a serious fear. Research shows that people are more scared of speaking in front of a crowd than of death. It used to be one of my fears too. I will let you into a secret: it still is. Although I have spoken to over three hundred at Exeter Chiefs Rugby Club, at professional conferences and special events, I still get nervous. It is just that those nerves take second place to me using the skill I have now developed.
For some crazy reason, at mid-life I decided the fear which stopped me even asking questions in groups in case I made a fool of myself, was something I wanted to change. I decided the low self-esteem I harboured for decades had had its time. Having a childhood where I had to keep my head down and not stand out from the crowd was in contrast to the need to be visible for my work...and besides, it was simply getting harder to stay down.
The Natural Child
Training to be an adult requires the learning of people skills like sharing, taking turns, considering the point of view of others, speaking respectfully. It is a fine balance to teach this without closing down a child's natural open default position of saying what they want and feel. It is so easy to shame a child as they arrive in the world all open with no emotional defences in place.
What a child needs is encouragement to maintain their ability and confidence to speak out and to be given appropriate spaces and times to do that. Too often we learn strategies to avoid the shaming of being shut up. Such as by putting ourselves down to make us more acceptable (we know our place so won't attract conflict). In my case, moving from school to school ten times, I found that fitting in was crucial for my safety and survival. I stayed silent and listened to find out how to belong to each new class and local culture. Each time the buds of confidence started emerging, it was off to another school and starting all over again.
Maybe for me the trigger to opening up by learning public speaking was being 'best man' for my brother's wedding, and realising how challenging it was, despite my desire to give him an entertaining launch into married life. I wrote and rewrote that speech. I rehearsed the hell out of it. I practiced pausing so I didn't rush it out in one minute flat. Although I came across okay, I knew how tense I really was and also how I couldn't dare deviate from the words I had written or I would panic. I have no idea how it was really received because I didn't ask. I didn't even ask anyone to listen to it beforehand, to help me. I didn't ask as I was still keeping myself down as best I could, even in such an important role.
My later journey through training in speaking skills so I could do my work differently meant growing an ability to adapt and be spontaneous as well as be prepared. To assess and respond to the audience, breath well so my voice could carry (and also so I would feel less nervous), and to be fluid and comfortable with my body language.
Have you ever found yourself telling a story and as you become nervous about whether you are boring the listener, that you start trying to get every detail right: “It was a Wednesday, no, a Thursday, I remember now it was definitely a Wednesday...” and worrying for ages whether anyone would pick you up on getting something not quite accurate? Or maybe you do the opposite: skipping out the good bits of your story to get to the end fast and feeling disappointed afterwards?
Most important for me was learning to let go of my attachment to getting things perfectly accurate and instead focus on the story or theme – the bit that catches the listeners. My colleague Rachel Jewell (a life coach) runs workshops on empowering women. She makes it quite clear that a requisite is to “quit perfect” as it is one of the biggest things that stop us going forward. We are good enough as we are, and imperfection is part of what makes us approachable, relatable and human.
Building Self Confidence
When I first joined a training course with an experienced speaker, I felt I was torturing myself with worry about being found out as not good enough (This is known as imposter syndrome). Yet what I discovered was that it was me doing the judging and that my biggest vulnerability was in hiding myself by holding back. It is only when we hide some part of ourselves that we can be found out.
How much public speaking would be a journey of self-development and self-discovery was a surprise to me. Silly really, as working to develop any skill to a proficient level of understanding and capability means you do change your person and it gives you confidence. It's a non-tangible craft. When we can trust our own judgement and feel comfortable with our abilities, self-esteem begins to grow naturally, though it is usually a long haul. When you have thought through what you want to say, you have considered what will make it easy for the listener(s), and know that you can say things clearly, it is impossible to continue with the massive self-doubt (though we can always find something to worry about).
I eventually found and joined a branch of a public speaking group called Toastmasters International (My local group is South West Speakers). It's volunteer led and such a positive supportive experience that I recommend it to everyone whether they want to be able to participate in a team meeting, promote a cause dear to their heart or speak from a stage about their work. I continue to learn, practice and get constructive feedback there. It is like my therapy – allowing myself to be vulnerable, being listened to intently and given feedback.
If you would like an introductory workshop as I first did, you are welcome to enquire about my autumn workshop on 'Speaking Out'. This is full of tips and tricks that make it easy, and rather than practice getting it right in the group, I encourage you in getting it wrong! Guess what – people laugh and enjoy themselves. The reason is that when we realise we can make mistakes and it be fine, or surprisingly better, then we know that we really can “quit perfect” and learn to enjoy speaking out. That is when the nerves begin to take second place.
Copyright Cathy Towers
Thank you Rachel Jewell for the “perfect”reminder: www.racheljewellcoaching.com
Cathy Towers is a BACP Senior Accredited Practitioner and a fully certificated Zero Balancer.
In the autumn she is running a workshop on “Speaking Out” and also hosting a morning of short talks followed by questions and answers on the theme of disconnected relationships.
Contact Cathy on 07989 564660