Here's How I Got Over My Fear Of Public Speaking

I was one of those girls who mostly sat at the back and spoke when I was coaxed into speaking.

Feb 12, 2013 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

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This is me conquering my fear. 

When I was maybe nine or 10 years old, I got chosen to be in this contest. I was a member of something called the Avid Readers Club at my favorite bookstore, and the winner would receive a year’s worth of books. But the contest was to be held in the middle of Trinidad’s busiest mall on a Saturday afternoon, and it would require me to read aloud. In public.

So of course I didn’t want to do it. Margo, a goody-two-shoes kind of girl who took piano lessons from my aunty June, had also been chosen for the contest.

“Why won’t you go? Margo is in the contest, too,” I remember Aunty June saying.

Didn’t matter. If I had to appear in public to read in front of people, I wasn’t doing it. What if some of the cool kids at school saw me engaged in such nerdery?

Margo went. She might even have won some kind of prize. I stayed home and sulked and felt inadequate and mad at myself. Eventually I even quit the Avid Readers Club.

That was the first time I turned down an opportunity that could have been awesome because of fear and self-doubt. But it definitely wasn’t the last.

If there ever was an opportunity to speak up or stand on stage or be in any kind of public setting, I wasn’t taking it. In high school and college, I wasn’t the one who’d raise my hand first, even if I knew the answer. There was something about having people look at me while I spoke that I had to avoid. I was one of those girls who mostly sat at the back and spoke when I was coaxed into speaking.

And when I went to college in America and the teachers didn’t understand my heavy island accent, my awkwardness quotient only increased. Eventually I learned to stop pronouncing the hard “t” and say “water,” “dirty” and “twenty” as “wadder,” “dirdy” and “twenny.” I wanted to assimilate. I wanted to be understood. I didn’t want to stick out like as much of a sore thumb as I believed myself to be.

As I grew up and started working as a professional writer, I didn’t think or plan on ever doing any kind of public speaking. I avoided it all as much as I could. But once I created my blog, Afrobella.com, the opportunities for appearances and public speaking engagements started rolling in. I realized that I had to rise to the occasion. I also realized that I had some major issues about being in the spotlight.

Four years ago, right around the time of Barack Obama’s first inauguration, I quit my job and became a full time blogger. I quit my job in February; my husband quit his job in March. We packed up a U-Haul and moved from Miami to Chicago, to settle in with his parents for a few months while we figured things out. It was around that time that I started getting asked to do random speaking engagements and appearances.

One request came from a friend of my mom-in-law’s. She taught at a local high school and wanted me to come in and speak to the girls there about self-esteem and building your own future. And, again, I said no.

When I was asked why not, I didn’t have a good reason or an excuse. I said no because I didn’t think what I had to say would resonate or be understood. I said no because I was scared. Scared to speak to a bunch of high-school girls. And here I was, a woman in her early thirties. 

I’m happy to say that was the last time I turned down an opportunity because of my own self-doubt. I realized I had some getting over to get over, so I started asking myself the tough questions. It was clear my fear of public speaking was tied to my body insecurities, my fear of not having the right words or not being intelligent enough. Doubt in my own abilities.

But I knew I actually did have something to say, something that needed to be heard and not just read on my blog. So I started pushing myself more. I got asked to be on panels, to host events, and to speak to college kids -- kids who needed encouragement.

But it’s one thing to stand at a podium and look out at an audience of strangers. It’s quite another to memorize a speech that’s almost 20 minutes long, and to then stand and deliver while your family’s in the audience. Imagine it. 

That's exactly what happened last December when I was invited to go back home to Trinidad and be the opening speaker for TEDxPortOfSpain. It was the biggest, scariest thing I’ve done so far.

There’s your mom and sister in the third row. There’s your brother toward the back. There’s your high school geography teacher. Some of your former classmates are in the balcony. There’s that one person you referred to in an important anecdote, the one you didn’t expect to actually be there. There is no podium to lean on or teleprompter to read from. And then there’s the knowledge that it’s all being filmed for people to watch and hopefully be inspired by later.

Needless to say I was terrified, and to be absolutely honest when I was initially asked the first words to flash into my mind were “No” And “You can’t.”

But I knew I had to say yes. And I prepared as much as I possibly could. I worked with TEDxPortOfSpain’s founder Keita Demming to craft my muddled thoughts into something coherent that conveyed what TED talks are supposed to be about -– ideas worth sharing. The week of the event, I practiced over and over again. I used flash cards. I tried to deliver the speech to my dad and found myself fumbling and stumbling over my words and feeling unsure and afraid all over again. But on 12/12/12, I had no choice but to rise to the occasion and the speech I had struggled to memorize morphed into something else. It became a talk.

I knew what I needed to say, and it may not have come out in the exact order I wrote it in, but it came out. I spoke my truth, in my true voice. And thankfully, my words were received with love.  

Giving that talk made me feel like I could do anything I put my mind to. I still get nervous about the prospect of public speaking, but now I don't give in to feeling afraid, unsure and like I’m not supposed to be there, like this was all some kind of mix-up. So if you have a fear of public speaking and you’ve got something coming up, here’s what I know now about myself and what I want you to know:

  • You were chosen for a reason.
  • People need to hear what you have to say, and you’ll get surprising validation after you’ve done it.
  • Pushing yourself to do scary things makes you braver and stronger. Not even kidding.
  • You really CAN do it. Like, for real.
  • You should always trust yourself. And you already know this.
  • Everything that I said above was addressed thusly by RuPaul.

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If I can do it, you can do it! What have you allowed your fears to hold you back from? And what fear will you overcome next?