I am standing in front of my freshman speech class. My breath is short. My head feels compressed, like the terror of peeking through my tight-shut eyelids and looking down as the roller coaster crawls to the top of that first hill. My voice is pitched lower than usual, my knees are shaking uncontrollably. I think only one sentence ahead, I remember nothing I have said. Afterward, I will only remember the speech in tiny bits and pieces.
So, if I’m that scared of public speaking, why do I, a few months later, decide to major in communications with an emphasis on public speaking and rhetoric? Okay, so the idea has to do with the fact that some of my friends have chosen majors in the same department. But as I choose the courses that will make up my degree, I’m intentionally taking classes that will require me to make speeches. Why?
Because it terrifies me. And because I’m awkward. And because I’m not shy but yet I still find it impossible to navigate even the simplest social situations. Good communication is learned and if a kindergartener can learn it, so can I.
There are comfort zones that you don’t need to leave or to stretch. If something simply does not appeal to you on any level, don’t do it unless you have to. But if there’s something you want to be good at, don’t worry about the pain it will take to get there. Get through whatever it is that scares you if it stands in the way of becoming the person you want to be.
Does that sound like inspirational crap? The sophomore-year speech class, with the same nerves, the same shaking, the same voice that I had to keep firmly in check lest it betray all my terror. The same high standards set by a professor which I feel are so easy in front of the mirror and so impossible in front of the class. I get through it. I get through it because I never allow myself to drop a class, but I also get through it by watching the people who are good at it. They take possession of the front of the room. They speak about topics as though they are the most fascinating thing in the world. They move easily, their voices pitch up and down to emphasize their points. Every time I manage to shift my leaden limbs, or break my monotone, is one baby step in the direction of making it look that easy.
I can remember my speeches afterward, not fully, but they aren’t as disjointed as traumatic events tend to be. I do not sit down with a feeling of victory, but neither do I sit down with a feeling of utter humiliation and failure. Will I ever be as good as those others? Maybe not, but at least I will finish this major I’ve set my mind to. I will at least be able to say, I faced my fear over and over and I survived.
So no, it’s not inspirational crap. It’s a process. It’s failure again and again until you make that first bit of progress. It’s thinking, “I can’t do this” and going on anyway. It’s getting kicked in the face by your lack of skill every day until you muster up the resources and the courage to kick back. It’s no exaggeration to call this sort of thing a battle.
Junior year, a few presentations, a debate class. The different formats of speaking make it easier and more fun. Switch things up a bit.
Senior year, more of the same. A few presentations. And I realize something astonishing: when I am teaching people something interesting, I actually enjoy speaking. I forget that I am standing in front of a room full of people, I get more relaxed and as I get more relaxed, I stress out less about my voice and posture and I can give more of my attention to the material. And moving around a bit, changing my pitch, starts to seem a little bit more natural.
My senior presentation is high-stress, but for the first time, I spend a half-hour presenting incredibly complex information to people mostly unfamiliar with the work I’ve been doing. I answer questions coherently. And I am able to walk away from that speech, given in front of friends, family, and a board of speech professors, with a sense of a job well done. I am crippled for the rest of the night by a migraine, but I finished the presentation. And I had not been anxious about the mechanics of the speech at all.
But the final hurdle yet remains: Senior speech class. “Advanced Public Speaking,” with the most demanding professor in the entire department. I’d had her as my freshman speech professor, which helps a bit as I already know the sorts of things she looks for. But my first two speeches are only mediocre. I am fairly interested in the subject material. But I simply do not feel in control of the situation. I spend the entire speech with half of my brain focused on the speech and half on self-doubt. “This is a stupid topic, nobody’s listening to you, you’re talking weird again, you’re not moving around, well that was just pathetic, you’re going to forget your next point.”
I know I have to make the last speech count. We are supposed to present an argument most of the audience would be hostile to. This is a tricky assignment in a place as homogenous as Cedarville, and people often end up arguing for viewpoints they don’t believe in themselves, just to meet the assignment requirements. That’s a great exercise for the more advanced speaker, but I need something I believe in if I want to really nail this speech. Thankfully, one of my viewpoints is one that I know nearly every person in the class will be hostile to. I can argue it effectively. And I am even fairly passionate on the topic. I am going to argue that the United States should legalize gay marriage.
Even as I construct my argument, I feel a thrill of excitement. I knew I have them all exactly where I want them. My argument is airtight. The audience will be forced to concede that my viewpoint is right. Or so I tell myself, as I work on fleshing out my argument, writing up a powerpoint, and practicing in front of the mirror, obsessively.
I start out that morning a little slow, as I always do. But I feel my excitement building, as I look at their skeptical faces. What a surprise I have in store for them. I build from the introduction into the body of my argument. I establish the importance of the issue. I draw on my constitutional law knowledge and overwhelm them with legal precedent. Then I move on to my ideological appeal, the equality leg of the argument. Are some of them actually paying attention now? I surge forward, my fear left behind, my nerves with me rather than against me. I feel as though I have every eye in the room as I deliver my carefully-crafted rhetorical finish. And then, just after I finish, the professor turns and says to the class, “now that was an argument!” I sit down with the most triumphant sense of victory I’ve ever felt. I have conquered my fear (and though it may rear its head again, it knows it has lost). I feel like I could have the whole world for the asking.
Was my speech perfect? The content may have been but the delivery certainly wasn’t. I didn’t turn into one of those live-wire performers whose bodies deliver half the speech for them. I am a little disappointed, reviewing the video later: I’d felt so much excitement, how had so little of it been obvious? But the important thing is, my whole perspective has changed. A speech is no longer a frightening, traumatic event. It’s a bit of a challenge, still, but it’s fun. It’s something I would look forward to, prepare for without all the anxiety.
Confidence is the game-changer. And you only truly get it when you do what scares you. Put something that scares you on your New Years’ Resolution list, and make it stand out from the other items on that list by actually accomplishing it. Maybe you won’t win against your fear this year, but make a start. It took four years for my first real victory, but it was worth every bit of panic, terror, hyperventilation, and migraine along the way.