When I tell people, I teach presentation skills for a living they often recoil before my eyes. As if I might call on them to speak if they hang around too long. They go on to explain they would rather die than have to speak in front of an audience. When they’ve adequately expressed themselves, their apprehension is replaced by a mystical glare as they begin to ask what would possess me to take this on as a career. I have yet to respond with something clever. I usually explain that I was once scared of speaking and have learned how to enjoy it. The mystical glare is replaced by skepticism and I’m left to wonder if they don’t believe me or if they don’t believe it’s possible.
Looking back, my brain has failed to produce vivid memories except when fear was present. One such time was when I was seventeen. I was shocked to be nominated for the role of president of the National Honor Society. I had just moved to the small Iowa town and started attending the high school a year prior. I didn’t think anyone even noticed me. I was blown away when I found out I had been voted in as the president. The role and responsibilities are blurred in the recess of my mind, but crisp outlines and bold colors bring one particular scene to life. As the new president, I was tasked with speaking in front of my peers and their parents. I don’t remember the days leading up to the presentation, the preparation it must have taken, or the anxiety that may have hung like a cloud over me. The shrinking lens I use to look back only includes my walking to the stage and standing at the lectern. I lost time while I was up there. It was as if I separated from myself and went to a safe place where all I could see was darkness. I must have carried on with my speech. When I was finished, I regained consciousness when I took my seat next to my Mom. She said I did a nice job. Which was a relief because I had no idea what I even said. This was the first time I felt fear grab hold of me without my permission.
I’m not alone in this experience. I share this because as the years go by, I reflect on the lessons fear has taught me. Fear evokes protection. What was I really scared of that day? You may have picked up on it in my writing. I mentioned I had just moved to a new school and didn’t think anyone even noticed me. I worked hard to blend in, to avoid attention, and to belong. It makes sense that stepping to the front of the room to deliver a speech to the very people I wanted to fit in with would terrify me. I would have to be confronted with being seen. This involves acceptance of self and I hadn’t even begun to figure out what that meant. I was still tripping over my growing feet and fighting my awkward six-foot one-inch body. To protect myself I hid behind the lectern, I clung to the pages in front of me, and limited my eye contact. I was not present (at all). I didn’t consciously create the circumstances that served to protect me. All of it was orchestrated by the parts of me that kicked in when I was in need of hiding. It’s been quite the journey, but I’ve learned to accept myself over the years. It’s been a gradual process of understanding how to extend myself a good deal of compassion, embrace my faults, and celebrate my gifts.
In my work with leaders, fear shows up so often that its more surprising when it isn’t present. There are technical aspects of speaking to audiences that are helpful and I teach those, but it is self-acceptance that builds ultimate confidence. Once earned, no audience can take that away from you. So, fear need not be feared. What ought to be feared is abandoning self. Afterall, a healthy dose of fear increases your heart rate, sharpens your mental capacity, and assists you in your interest in doing well. The next time you feel fear when it’s your time to take the stage, consider it a helpful companion and give yourself a big hug.