Public speaking won’t kill you (probably)

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I said yes before I even thought about saying no.

That’s how I ended up speaking at the launch of Comms For Good.

I said yes before any anxiety about public speaking could kick in, before my brain could think up an excuse, before I could convince myself that there were other, better, more experienced speakers who could do it. Even before I could think about where or when or whether I was free that evening.

Saying yes, however, didn’t stop me panicking repeatedly over the following couple of months in the run up to the event.

I fretted. I frowned. I found this playlist of Ted X Talks and watched on repeat (please always talk nerdy to me).

My nervousness shouldn’t come as a surprise though.

Beyond the fact that I’m me and I overthink almost everything – public speaking scares most of us. More than heights, sickness, death, and the ineluctable emptiness of space, it’s the seemingly harmless activity of presenting to crowds that’s year-on-year the winner of the “most scary thing in the universe” award. Tim Urban pointed out that this means most of us are less worried about ending up in a coffin than reading a eulogy. Priorities, right?

But just think of the pressure involved. We have to make sure we’re at least partially interesting whilst speaking s o  s l o w l y it feels like talking whale and make eye contact (without being weird) all at the same time.

Plus, opening ourselves to recrimination and ridicule isn’t anyone’s natural inclination. Fluffing lines and looking like an idiot is definitely a no-no. After all, we care about what people think about us. We want them to like us. We fear rejection.

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So how to persuade your brain that you’re not going to die if you stand up and speak? 

The obvious answer is to practise. To write your speech in advance and learn it. Perform it to your bathroom mirror. Read it to your unfortunate flatmate. Practice, practice, practice. I also found it helpful to record myself and listen back to how I spoke, where I stumbled, what sentences tripped me up repeatedly. Feel free to steal that one if your mates don’t want to listen to your same words for the umpteenth time.

If you know you’re going to have to do some public speaking in your future, try finding smaller opportunities first. Back in October last year, I took part in London’s first Death Festival – LifeDeathWhatever. Alongside the incredible Lucy Talbot, I led a book group style discussion on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Nerve-wracking? Yes (especially given the book is so well-loved and deals with such powerful topics) but the experience was invaluable when it came to Comms For Good. I was far more aware of the room and far less anxious than I expected to be. Any similar experience can help.

Do it for something you truly care about. Comms For Good is all about bringing communities of people together, collaborating to bring about change, and telling the stories that matter so that words become actions. These aims are all close to my own core values and made it easy for me to ignore my overthinking brain, to focus on why I wanted to take part. If you’re worried, find a reason to care enough that  your nerves feel petty.

Choose one idea only. When you’re nervous it’s easy to be carried away by stray thoughts or ideas. So choose a topic – the idea to which you always return and treat it as your safe island. Focus gives your audience something to really engage with, and also means you have a strong foundation for your narrative to grow on.

Remember that the audience probably isn’t there for you so much as the idea. Generally, you won’t go to a gig because the guitarist is a great person but because you love the music. Likewise, it’s not Brian Cox that makes Brian Cox interesting, it’s the ideas he discusses and shares. When you’re speaking, people don’t actually care that much about you. They’re not there to see you fail (unless you’re a dick, but then you have bigger problems). And they’re not there to judge. They’re there because they want to hear what you have to say. So let go of your ego and let the idea lead.

Accept that you might not be the best. Right before the event started Kate made an incredibly valid point: We all want to be TED level speakers by the time we take the stage. But admitting that we haven’t learnt what all our ticks and quirks and nervous fallbacks are yet is essential as novices. It shifts our mindset from trying to be the best, to striving to be better. And that way we’re not just alleviating stress but prepping ourselves for next time – preparing to grow. You feel more confident for it.

Find your friends in the audience. I don’t mean literal friends (although they might be there) but the people who are listening and engaging with you. This not only forces you to look up (pro-engagement tip that one), it makes your body language easier in general. Plus, if you can encourage that stage-audience relationship then the goodwill spreads across the room. So talk to people and make mental mates.

Just do it. Say yes. Aristotle said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” So stop making excuses. If you actually want to overcome your fear then start speaking. Stand up and present.

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Watch a snippet of my talk below

There’s a huge amount for me to learn – I’m certainly no expert in public speaking. And you can tell. But I’m excited to learn and grow from here. In the next few months, I’d love to do more, speak more, say yes more. Let’s see what happens.

NEW BLOG UP 💁✨ And here is a clip from that Comms For Good talk I did. It’s not pretty. It’s far from perfect. And I say ‘UM’ a lot more than I realised but hey, I’m learning. . . Sometimes the best lessons are those we can teach ourselves. Having recorded my talk at the Comms For Good launch, I’m taking the chance to watch and learn from the video. It’s shown me what I do well and revealed what I can do better. Here’s to always learning 🙌 . . “Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.” George Bernard Shaw . . #bookish #bibliophile #bookquotes #igquotes #goodvibes #positivity #publicspeaking #speakup #commsforgood #storytelling #neverstoplearning #learningbydoing #failure #mistakes #ownit #girlboss #thisgirlcan #bossbabe #london #londonlife #georgebernardshaw

A post shared by Harriet Jane (@thescribblebug) on Mar 20, 2017 at 12:02am PDT

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