Full Disclosure: I have a real fear of public speaking. I understand that’s probably a strange thing to hear from someone who has spent most of her adult life in the public eye. With all the jobs I've had, as deputy director of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission, Massachusetts secretary of economic affairs and, currently, president of Bentley University, I’ve never been very comfortable in front of a large crowd.
And that discomfort has exhibited itself in odd ways: In junior high school, I took speech and drama classes and starred in class plays -- until one day I inexplicably forgot my well-rehearsed lines. I then did my best to avoid speeches of any kind. During my undergraduate days at Vassar College, I deliberately took small seminars with five or six other students -- to avoid larger, more intimidating venues for public speaking.
But after college, speaking to groups became impossible to avoid. Working for an Arlington County, Virginia, human resources office, I had to make presentations on a regular basis. Then there were large lectures in law school, and, later, more classes and career opportunities -- all of which emphasized public speaking. While I dreaded these events, I had no choice but to face my fear head-on and try to overcome it, living out that old saying, “It’s easier to swim in deep water.”
Things got easier. Each time I raised my hand in class or strode to the podium, I realized I wasn’t going to faint (at least not right away). The adrenaline kicked in. I made it through. Over time, I got more and more proficient.
Am I still nervous in front of a large crowd? Of course, but now I know I’m prepared and that most audiences want speakers to succeed. The lessons I learned while tackling my fear of public speaking have been invaluable. Here are five that have helped me stand tall at the podium, and on many other stages in life:
1. Attack your fears.
You’ll never get better at anything if you avoid it. Whatever it is you fear, tackle it directly. Don’t let it tackle you.
2. Learn from your mistakes.
Each new public speaking opportunity gave me the opportunity to make new mistakes. And I made them -- everyone does. It’s what you do after making a mistake that matters. Learn from every forgotten line, every misspoken name, every long pause. Turn what seems like a negative experience into a positive one and make sure you don’t repeat it.
3. Believe in yourself.
With nearly every initiative you undertake, you’re going to hear from naysayers who don’t believe in you or what you’re doing. Be confident in yourself and make sure the loudest naysayer you have isn’t in your own head.
4. Build a support group.
Having a support system is incredibly important. It’s easy to call on your support system when things are going well, but it’s when things aren’t on track that a support system is so important. It may be a few colleagues you’re close with, a mentor or even your spouse. They are the ones who will remind you that things will be okay.
5. Get back on the horse.
Freezing on stage, as I once did, or fumbling a few words, as I often do, is not the end of the world. Often, in both our professional and personal lives, we put so much pressure on ourselves to succeed flawlessly. That’s not realistic. If you make a mistake, learn from it and try again. Trust me, you will get better
Today, each day on campus, I speak with students who are facing their own uncertainties, their own doubts. Sometimes those doubts focus on something I’ve battled myself -- like my fear of public speaking. Other times, it’s one of those age-old student questions like, how will I find a good internship or a great job?
I’ve found that for our students, and for people in most challenging situations, tackling the fear head-on is the key to overcoming it -- instead of letting it overcome you.