Actionable items or key-takeaways—taking a deep breath before starting to speak in public, speaking slowly, and being alright with making mistakes. Knowing that you can admit to having made a mistake will take the extra pressure off of you to be “perfect”.

When I was 18, I was an undergraduate student in Mumbai, India. I had no experience with making presentations. They were not really required of students. However, when I did some independent research about the paint industry in India, my professor wanted me to present it. To be honest, I thought “to present” meant to read out the report to the students.

When I climbed up the podium in the classroom, and saw a hundred pairs of eyes on me, fear grabbed me by the throat. I realized I did not have time to read the whole report, and that I would have to summarize it. So, I started summarizing—ad-libbing—with no preparation, no props. Powerpoint had not yet been invented.

I stumbled over my words. And, as I stumbled, the problem just snowballed. My eyes teared up, and I do not honestly remember how I made it to the end of the talk. I remember wanting to run away and disappear. When I went home, I told my mom about the horrible experience, and how I had made an utter fool of myself. My mom, a high school graduate and stay at home mom, gently told me to take public speaking lessons.

Following my mom’s advice, I enrolled in Nazareth Public Speaking Academy for a 10 week course. It was comforting to be in a room full of people who were all there because they were afraid of speaking in public. But, it was still hard. Every time it was my turn to speak, I suffered. There were physical manifestations of my feelings—sweaty palms, palpitating heart and intense panic. The classes were not cheap. That, in itself, was motivation for me to attend all 10 sessions. However, I still was not a good public speaker by the end of it—I was not over my panic attacks. But, I survived.

Public Speaking as a Teacher

Young entrepreneurs listening to professor in lecture hall
Young entrepreneurs listening to professor in lecture hall

When I moved to the U.S. for grad studies, public speaking was required for class presentations. I stumbled through them for better or worse. When I started my Ph.D., I had to start teaching classes. For me, there could be no worse torture. By then, I had learned to hide the physical manifestations of my terror—my hands still trembled, but, I pretended to be not scared. Students gave me feedback that I spoke too fast. They did not know that it was the direct result of my knotted stomach. This went on for a few years.

Finally, when I started teaching as a faculty member, I was older and a bit wiser. I got to a point where I was tired of being stressed about speaking. I had to do it—it was part and parcel of my job. I just decided not to care anymore. This did not mean that I did not prep. I still prep a lot. But, I stopped caring about how I was perceived. I stopped caring about what my students thought about it. If I was searching for words, I stopped and gave myself a few seconds to think about it. Silence between words and sentences did not bother me. The funny thing is that the slower I spoke, the more in control I was over my feelings. The more I was able to control my feelings, the slower I spoke. I was in a “panic-talk fast–panic some more” cycle before. Now, I was in a “speak slowly-feel calm-continue to speak slowly” cycle. When I stopped caring, my natural sense of humor that used to show itself in conversations with friends crept into my public speaking interactions. I was willing to admit not knowing something. I was alright with admitting that I had my flaws and weaknesses like all humans do. Surprisingly, students started warming up to me personally, and felt comfortable to approach me for help with issues close to their hearts.

I am not a stellar speaker. But, I now know that taking a deep breath before starting, speaking slowly, and being alright with making mistakes and admitting to having made mistakes took the extra pressure that prevented me from speaking freely before. I am still a work in progress—aren’t we all? But I am ok with that.

Actionable Items
  • Don’t care about what others think about you. In other words, try not to be self conscious. I got there over time. Look for my next entry about tips to be less self conscious.
  • Speak slowly and deliberately.
  • Remember to take a deep breath or several deep breaths before starting. Pause for deep breaths.
  • Know that you will make mistakes – you may mispronounce a word, make grammatical errors or misstate facts. You are human. It’s all right to admit mistakes, and try to correct yourself.

Do you have any stories overcoming the fear of public speaking? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.