Public speaking in any setting can be daunting. From a light conversation amongst a group of friends - to packed out auditoriums - having to speak in front of others can send us into a horrible sense of panic. Some people avoid the opportunity to speak publicly like the plague, whilst others deliver with a confidence that makes the listener believe they are some sort of super human from a different planet. The situation does arise in everyone’s life and for those of you who are wanting to do it (or have to), below are some useful pointers than can help during that moment of fight or flight.
My own struggle with public speaking
Before we get into the nitty gritty of what I feel helps in regards to public speaking, I would first like to explore my own journey through communicating in front of large groups of people.
In 2012, whilst in a group full of fellow students, I had my first panic attack. I remember the room felt like it went widescreen, I could not breathe and I had this overwhelming feeling that everyone in the room did not want me there. From that point forward, I would start to experience panic attacks on a weekly basis, not just in classrooms, but also in situations I never previously had a problem with. I had panic attacks at the airport, in the bathroom, in my parents car - you name it and I am sure I have panicked there!
After several months of having these attacks, which resulted in a massive loss of confidence and self belief, I decided I was going to get a hold of the situation and overcome it.
I started practising the act of mindfulness. Mindfulness is largely documented in today’s society, but for those of you that are not aware of it, Mindfulness is the practise of being in the present moment. Panic attacks are a reaction to anxiety, which tends to stem from overthinking past events or worrying about potential future circumstances. I would use mindfulness whenever I noticed that anxiety was starting to come over me. For example, if I felt anxious, I would start to list in my head all the things I could see around me. This made my mind present, resulting in my anxious thoughts being pushed out of the forefront of my mind.
Over time, with the help of some light therapy, mindfulness resulted in me taking control of my anxiety and the panic attacks stopped. As of early 2013 I have not had one panic attack. That said, the work was not yet done, and the next step was to start rebuilding my confidence.
Going out of my comfort zone
The strategy I used to work towards removing any mental limitations I was putting on myself, was to push myself out of my comfort zone. In late 2013, I moved away from my home town to what people from the North of England refer to as “that there London”. It was during this relocation that I would start to conquer my internal fear of public speaking.
After seeing an ad on MeetUp.com offering a free taster lesson in stand up comedy, I thought this would be my perfect opportunity to push myself further than the world I had previously known; One riddled with self doubt and irrational barriers.
After completing the course, I did my first performance - in front of 18 people. Over the next 3 years I would perform over 200 gigs, in front of crowds of up to 500 people. Whilst it is fair to say that during this time my confidence improved dramatically, it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a process that I would undertake each time I would speak in front of a large room of people.
Like I say, public speaking will be put in front of us at some point in our life. Some of you reading this may, like me, have to speak about your photography and really sell why you think your work is worth its crust.
Below are some necessary steps I feel everyone should take to ensure they are in the best mindset to deliver a talk publicly.
People do not want to see you fail - The first thing to remember is that people are generally on your side. If people have taken their time to come and hear what you have to say, it is because they already have an interest in you. Very few people take time out of their busy schedule on the hope that they may see someone crumble in front of them. Thrive off their interest and use that energy to drown out any self doubts you may have.
Be prepared - Before you get up in front of others, make sure you know exactly what you’re talking about. Never wing it, it will most likely end badly. I have made this mistake myself and learnt that, as mind numbing as it can be, putting in the hard work and preparation has it's benefits. Whilst nobody wants to see you fail, people are very receptive and will know when you are winging it - which can result in them losing interest, trust or confidence in what you are saying. Believe me, once you have lost your audience, it can be extremely difficult to get them back.
Deep breaths and positive mantras - In the moments just before I would go on stage, I would take a moment to focus on my breath and give myself positive reinforcement. 10 deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. On my out breath I would say to myself - “I have no limitations”. It may sound a little airy fairy, because it is - however it would be the difference between me facing my fears or going home because I didn’t work through my barriers and get up and perform.
Accept that being perfect is unlikely - One of the most common things I hear when I talk to people about public speaking, is that they want their talk to go perfectly. The reality is - it won’t. You may have the odd stutter, or deliver too quickly or too slowly. You may forget a section of your speech - it happens. Working to perfection could actually make you more nervous and anxious, where as if you accept that the odd slip up is inevitable, you can then concentrate on enjoying it more and deliver with confidence.
Embrace it - In today’s world where people are being more socially awkward and feel more comfortable interacting through a screen rather than face to face, being able to speak publicly is a great skill to have. People will admire you, look up to you and have a huge amount of respect for you. Take confidence from that and run with it!
Make it a reality
If you have something interesting to say, and you feel you can say it well, there are plenty of places you can put your public speaking into practise. Sign up to open mic nights or find a debate club in your local area for example. If you want to discuss photography, get in touch with local organisations and photographic collectives to ask if you can get 5 minutes to speak about your project. You could even get a group of friends round and discuss your topic in front of them (an old friend taught me “if you can speak in front of 5 friends then you can speak in front of 500 strangers”).
Which ever approach you take, get out there, do it, and deliver. You have a wonderful, interesting take on the world - people are waiting to hear it.
Thanks for reading.
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