Growing up I always had a tremendous fear of public speaking and I avoided it at all costs. I was comforted when I read some research study that said the fear of public speaking out did the fear of death by about 2 to 1.
This means that more people would rather die than have to speak in public. Yes, I was one of them. So I avoided it at all cost. I just didn’t realize what it was costing me. I had good grades in high school and I had lots of choices. The real reason I went into Engineering was that I looked through the entire college curriculum guide and found that only two majors did not have speech in the curriculum: Forestry and Engineering. I didn’t know anything about Forestry and really didn’t want to know anything about it. But I was very interested in Engineering so I selected Mechanical Engineering – a good choice it turns out.
Right after my senior year in college, I landed a great job with a multi-national oil company. Within about 6 months of working there I was told, because of the size of my project, I would have to present my next project to the committee (all of management) to get the funding to move forward. It was a week away and my stomach was in a knot. I prayed that somehow this burden would be lifted from me – but nothing, I had to face the reality. So on that day, I waited outside the conference room feeling like I was waiting for my turn in front of the firing squad. Then it came my turn and I was invited in the conference room. I stepped up to the long table with all the managers wrapped around the other side. I laid my file open in front of me and began to speak.
I immediately felt a wave of nervousness rising from my feet. It continued up my body and when it got to my throat, about 30 seconds into my presentation, it was like a magic hand grabbed my throat and squeezed it shut. No more words were coming out, even as I continued to move my mouth. All the managers began to look at me strangely. In that instant, I realized that I had just wasted all those years in Engineering School, because my career of doing this stuff was over. I had to find something new that did not require presentations. I could be as a postal carrier or something where you never deal with more than one person at a time. After all, I had always been very friendly and outgoing. I just could not speak in public. So since I could no longer speak to the managers in that dreadful meeting, I closed my folder and walked out of that conference room. I went to my office and sat down. I would have cried but I was too angry at this cruelty of life, so I didn’t cry. Then my boss walked in and said, “What happened?” I hung my head, then he said, “it’s alright everyone blows it once in a while.” Then he left. I felt about 12 inches tall. Then my boss’s boss, walked in and said, “What happened?” I hung my head, then he said, “it’s alright everyone blows it once in a while.” Then he left. I felt about 6 inches tall. All I could think to do is go see Steve the head of another department. He was not in the horrible presentation. He had recently told me that if I ever needed anything, to come see him. So I went. His door was always open and he was in, so I said, “Hey, can I talk to you?” He said, “Sure come on it. It’s okay, I have already heard.” I felt about 1 inch tall.
He persuaded me to take a public speaking course. So I asked him how much it would cost. Then he said, “It’s not what it will cost you to take the course; the question is what it will cost you if you don’t take the course.” So I enrolled in the course and went to work on a very important endeavor. Almost 5 years to the day after that event. I was one of the featured speakers at a national convention. I presented to 1400 plant managers from around the country. I was on video with my image projected on the big screen for all to see. I not only did a great job, but it felt great too! And this time I said a different prayer (a thank you prayer). After I got over my initial nervousness and starting presenting and speaking, I got pretty good at it. Part of getting good included me teaching others how to present. So I started teaching classes to help people overcome their fear of public speaking. Then in the second session, one lady came up to me after the class and said, “John look at you, you’re natural, this stuff is easy for you – you don’t understand, we are really scared.” That’s when I realized I needed to let the class see the real me – the one who had a tremendous fear of public speaking and then went on to conquer that fear. So from then on, I told them the Engineering Story when I would start a new class.
Learn more about how to overcome your fear of public speaking by downloading my telling PDF – “Killing the Fear of Public Speaking”. I’d love to hear your stories about the time you had to confront your fear and how you overcame it.