The #1 Reason
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I was recently a guest speaker at a live event on the Gold Coast in Australia.
I spoke in front of 200 people for about an hour. I used 27 slides in my presentation, which were almost all just one picture each slide that I put together the night before I was due to present.
Using single picture slides means you basically talk off the top of your head, using each picture as a prompt for your story and visual stimulus for the audience. I have used slides that feature dot point lists and titles, which works well too, but I decided if I know my topic well, pictures are a lot more fun.
I’ve presented at many live workshops with groups of 50 to 500 people over the past five years. However, there was something special about this presentation for me.
I felt no fear.
In fact, I was looking forward to doing the presentation. I was excited to use the picture slides, to tell my story and engage and educate the audience.
It helped that I have presented on this topic many times before, and I’m great friends with the hosts of the event – Liz and Matt Raad – who have a similar vibe to me. You could say it was a “perfect” environment. However the fact that I was actually looking forward to it and not afraid is a huge deal, it shows how far I have come regarding public speaking.
I was a very shy child. Very very shy.
I look at my little brother today, who is almost four years old, and find it amazing how fearless he is of strangers. He will play with virtually any other child like they are his instant best friend. He has very little fear of adults as well, having no issues talking to any random person, and involving them in games and activities.
When I was my brother’s age I stood behind my mum’s leg whenever I met anyone new and it took me a long time to warm to people. Even as an adult I find it takes a while for me to reach a comfort zone with new people, however I have learned how to be much more socially “fearless”.
As all people discover as they grow up, the more socially comfortable you are, the more opportunities you enjoy. Life tends to challenge you with many situations where being a more social person has advantages, which used to really annoy me. I felt, as an introverted person who didn’t want to talk much, that I should not be forced to be outgoing if I didn’t want to be.
I knew that if I was relaxed and comfortable, I was capable of enjoying conversation and could possibly be a good speaker with valuable things to say. Because of my shyness I preferred to be in my own head. I didn’t like to be ignored, but I would choose to be ignored rather than face the fear of talking in front of other people.
As everyone who has gone through a schooling system knows, as you move through each grade, the demands on you to present orally increases. Whether it’s to answer questions in class, participate in group discussions, to do group or individual oral presentations in front of class – it never seems to end.
And boy did I hate it!
I’m embarrassed to admit that during grade seven at my school I faked an eye injury once to get out of my turn of being the senior student in charge of the school assembly. This role, which cycled through all students in the final year of primary school, involved presenting updates to the entire school assembly on Fridays – which at the time was my idea of hell.
Of course my faked injury only got me out of it for one week, and the following week I found myself in front of the entire school, reading out notes, listening to the younger kids making fun of my Canadian accent, just wishing it was all over.
Fast forward throughout the rest of high school and on into university, my fear of oral presentations persisted. I actually went as far as looking up the subjects at university and attempting to avoid any course that included the words “oral” in the assessment criteria.
Any time I had a presentation to do I managed to get through it with the aid of palm cards. I am sad to say that I was one of those students who essentially read their palm cards, glancing up from time to time to appear to “engage” with my audience. All I wanted to do was just get it over with.
This fear affected my personal life as well. I didn’t like to talk to people in groups, and going up to strangers at events or parties wasn’t exactly easy. I can say that much of my teenage years and early twenties were negatively impacted by social phobia, or at least a fear of talking to other people and being the focus of attention.
There’s no quick fix solution to this problem. My own experience can be summed up as a combination of good old fashioned hard work and study, driven by a desire to change my life and not be trapped by fear, combined with immersion therapy.
I realized being afraid of social experiences and public speaking was hurting my ability to enjoy life and achieve goals. I knew that I had to make the choice to change, learn techniques and most importantly, take action and force myself to do things I didn’t like.
Immersion therapy – to feel the fear and do it anyway – is by far the best way to overcome something. Given enough exposure to what you fear, it will eventually have less power over you. You get used to it. That doesn’t make it an easy process to start, but at least you know the path.
I applied the immersion therapy process to many aspects in my life, from making friends, networking at events, parties, to even dancing in clubs, and of course meeting girls. In this article we will focus on public speaking, since that is very relevant to entrepreneurs, and something that immersion therapy can help with.
Public speaking isn’t actually something I set out to do. I never wanted be a seminar speaker, flying all over the world speaking at events, doing pitches and so forth. Not only was I afraid of speaking on stage, I knew it wasn’t the kind of business for me. I was an online marketer for a reason – the freedom – and being stuck on airplanes and living in hotels week after week was not the plan.
Despite this, when I became known for something – in this case blogging – certain doors started to open to me when it came to public speaking. Many of those doors I deliberately chose not to open, but eventually I decided to say yes so I could get a taste for it.
Back in 2007 I made friends with Andrew and Daryl Grant, who were building a fantastic business based on delivering live events, usually three day teaching sessions followed by an invitation to join their coaching programs.
I had connected with the Grants initially by interviewing Daryl on a podcast for this blog and they then invited me to attend one of their events, which I did.
Because I sent them quite a few new people to their website, they started to mention me whenever they talked about blogging as a way to both drive traffic and make money, and also how effective interviews are as an exposure tool, citing my interview with Daryl as an example.
It was clear that the Grants were going to continue to invite me to their events and would eventually want me to talk more, maybe even do an actual presentation, about what I was doing with blogs.
I had some experience presenting online by this stage, creating podcasts and recording audios for my courses. Despite sitting safely at home with my computer by myself, I still found this style of talk daunting.
However, there was one key difference with the presentations I was beginning to do online compared to all those (bad) experiences back at school and university: This time I knew my subject well because I cared about it.
Talking about something I had done successfully and enjoyed doing, was so different compared to figuring out what to say about subjects I wasn’t interested in. I liked talking about blogging. I knew my methodology well because I had lived it. I had taught it to others. It worked and it was mine to teach.
This certainly made me more confident to present something on stage, but I was still scared about getting up in front of so many people and being the focus of all their attention.
Here’s a clip from one of my more recent presentations at a how to buy and sell websites workshop run by Matt and Liz Raad…
Thankfully, I wasn’t thrown in the deep end immediately. It wasn’t exactly a deliberate plan on my part, and perhaps Andrew and Daryl could tell I had fear about doing presentations, so my emergence on to the stage was gradual.
Initially when I attended events where I knew the speaker (the Grants, Mike Filsaime, Rich Schefren, etc) I would often be singled out during certain presentations as a guy who knew about blogs. I would be in the audience and stand up, often just to acknowledge who I was, sometimes to briefly talk about what I did.
This progressed one day to an actual trip on to the stage. The Grants asked if I would do a interview live on stage, answering questions from the Grants and the audience.
I was very nervous before doing this, so I actually took a step to help ease my nerves – I asked a question myself during one of the Q&A sessions before it was my turn to be on stage. This was like a tiny bit of immersion therapy, like dipping your toe into the water before you jump in.
Nerves are always worse just before you speak. Once you are speaking you relax into it, and by the end you may even find yourself enjoying it if you are not careful.
While it took many experiences before I could fully relax, I did find once the initial few minutes on stage were over I got on with the job of presenting and my brain switched into teaching mode.
My first interview on stage with the Grants was scary, especially looking down at all those people in the audience staring back at me. At the end of it I felt not only a sense of relief, but also a sense of excitement. It was actually fun.
I went on from that experience to participate in a few panel interviews and hot seat discussions at various networking events and workshops. I like the off the top of your head style discussions, but was yet to do a proper presentation where I was the only presenter.
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Eventually the Grants asked if I would do a one hour presentation on how to make money blogging, and I said yes. I was nervous, but I knew I could do it and it would help me grow as well.
I prepared my power point slides for what was basically a stage version of the Blog Profits Blueprint report, practiced once and then waited for the weekend to arrive.
I remember being very very nervous for this first presentation, especially that moment where I would be the only one on stage, with so many people expecting things from me.
As I have written about in the past, I used to suffer from panic attacks, which I overcame with a combination of personal development and cognitive behaviour training. Of course as anyone who has had panic attacks will know, the potential for them to surface is always there, you just learn how to deal with it.
During my first trip to the stage to present solo, I felt that familiar sense of panic growing within me. It was a really surreal experience, especially during the first 15 minutes or so of my talk.
I felt one part of my brain focusing on the presentation, going through my slides and focusing on teaching. Then there was this other part of my brain saying things like…
You do realize everyone is staring at you right now?
They are all listening to you, just you, you really shouldn’t be up here, it’s not something you do.
What on earth are you doing, you are going to have a panic attack right on stage!
Basically my fear brain was telling me to freak out while I was trying to hold it together to get through my presentation. It was totally bizarre, and I really had to focus and concentrate to not buckle.
I forced my brain to ignore the fear thoughts and focus only on my slides. Slowly things got better and the fear subsided, but it stands out as one of the strangest feelings I have ever had, and not something I want to feel again.
While I never experienced quite the same level of anxiety during a presentation since then, I did go on to have varying levels of fear at the start of several presentations after this.
Despite the fear, I eventually found myself doing a two hour long presentation in front of a huge auditorium of 500 people.
As I became more comfortable on stage, I started being more myself and relying less on the slides to get me through it. During a presentation at a Mal Emery event I decided that I didn’t even need a full slide presentation and I would just use one big slide with a list of dot points, which I would go through and use as triggers to basically “riff” on each concept.
I am quite good at “riffing” as I found out from creating podcasts, and then teaching people on group coaching calls. Once you have done something for long enough you really know the fundamentals well, plus you have plenty of experience to back it up and enough general knowledge about your industry, so you can basically talk about anything. This all leads to more confidence, so I felt okay going into a presentation without the back-up of a full slide show.
In more recent years as I have done presentations in front of large crowds at networking events (for example, the HIVE in Brisbane), I’ve found that I need minimal preparation and just a few key points as triggers.
That’s of course if I am invited to talk about the subjects I know about. I can easily get into the flow and ramble about subjects like blogging, internet marketing and entrepreneurship, but ask me to talk about something outside of my industry or my own life and the confidence will fade.
I find it easy to present using case studies – basically story telling from my own experiences or others I have taught, or met or worked with. Much like a good blog relies on stories, a good presentation is the same.
Stories are like references that back up what you are saying. Just as a journalist or academic relies on references, knowing a few examples to use in a presentation makes the process more engaging for your audience, and easier for you to appear “smart”. Experts are after all just people who have done things.
After last weekend I can now say unequivocally, that I enjoy public speaking. That’s absolutely incredible to say, knowing where I was when I was younger.
Since I have done countless presentations and become somewhat of an “oldie” in my industry, I have enough in my background, in terms of personal success and failure, and success helping others, that I feel confident in my ability to have something valuable to say.
I’ve noticed that thanks to presenting on stage the confidence has permeated into other areas of my life (and vice versa – as I have built confidence in other ares of my life, my confidence on stage has improved).
I’m not exactly a toastmaster, and to be honest at the moment I don’t have any aspirations to increase my public speaking practice beyond what I already do. At least I can say that I feel comfortable enough to be myself on stage and when doing any form of speaking in public, and that’s the best place to be.
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I’ll end this article with some tips that I have extrapolated for you from my own journey. I hope these concepts will help you overcome any public speaking fears to the point where you feel like yourself on stage, or in any public speaking arenas.
This is a guiding principle for anything I feel afraid about doing or worry about not succeeding at. Whether it’s presenting on stage, launching a product, going up to talk to a girl at a party, or even having what society tells you is a “successful” life.
Your concerns about performance arise from your ego’s desire for recognition, the fear of failure and of what people will think of you. Drop the ego and accept that you can never control what other people think. All that is left is what really matters – the performance itself. Stay focused on doing the best job you can given your current situation.
Reducing your attachment to outcomes is a helpful reframe. I find it makes anything I am about to do feel less important, thus less anxiety ridden. What matters is having the experience.
However it is necessary to marry this concept with a healthy dose of desire.
There’s nothing wrong with needing or wanting something – you should feel this in order to motivate you to get better or to strive for something. Just remember in the end it doesn’t have any more meaning than you give it.
This tip is dipping into more personal development subject matters, which obviously are relevant if you want to improve an aspect of your life like public speaking. If you are interested in a deeper looking at my philosophy on how to create positive change in your life, start here (and read all 9 chapters if you are really keen!).
It helps if you know the topic you are about to talk about, but it goes beyond mere knowledge, you need to really care about it.
If you love what you are talking about so much that you could just blabber on without the need for props or palm cards or slides or anything, it’s much easier to sound natural and enthusiastic when you present. Subjects that are your passions are fun to talk about (that’s why so many people are great when it comes to talking about themselves!).
Use storytelling and case studies to demonstrate your passion. This will make public speaking a breeze, once you get past the primal fear of exposure to people in public, which you can do with help from immersion therapy, coming up next…
It really helps if you can build your capabilities up with small doses of public speaking.
You might start by desensitizing yourself to that experience of everyone listening to you by asking a question next time you are in a group situation, or at a workshop. This is great because you only have to say a sentence or two, but you are the center of attention during that time. It’s daunting for shy people, but a great first step towards longer periods of immersion.
Other things you might try to build up your tenacity –
And on and on and on… You must continue to immerse yourself in these public exposure experiences until you no longer feel uncomfortable about it. It’s all about baby steps.
The very first few episodes of my podcast where just me talking off the top of my head into a microphone. This helped me get comfortable speaking publicly because I knew the audio would be distributed to people all over the world, and helped me to develop the ability to “riff” without any notes or slides.
Even if you don’t have a podcast you can practice creating an audio file by recording your voice into your computer. Just don’t be too hard on yourself when you listen to the playback, nobody likes the sound of their own voice.
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It might not be live, but creating video is very similar to presenting on stage (and trust me, you can be just as nervous before creating a video even if you are by yourself). You get the chance to “retake” your mistakes, but the sense that everybody is listening to you is still there – and the pressure to perform too!
You can take this a step further by doing live online presentations like a Webinar. I still feel nervous before doing webinars because of the live factor, so it’s great practice for getting on stage.
Here’s the playlist for my Yaro.TV daily videos – short and casual videos I make with my mobile phone camera.
This is not something I have done, but I did do drama classes in high school (I still can’t believe I did this!), which was a great way to force myself to act in public situations.
The commitment when you sign up for something that you know will put you in situations that are uncomfortable is powerful. It’s like a promise you make to yourself, which means you will feel pretty bad if you don’t.
I hate regret more than anything. I’d rather fail or make a fool of myself rather than not do something I know I want to do. Taking a course or some kind of commitment that forces you to practice is a great idea.
I find talking with a friend, or doing an interview, or any environment where it’s not just you, a much more comfortable set-up for public speaking.
You might do a webinar or podcast with a partner, or conduct live workshops with a friend, or just get yourself invited to participate in a question and answer session as a guest expert. Whatever the case, as a first taste of public teaching, doing it with another person makes it much easier.
It also makes you feel more accountable to work with a friend because you don’t want to disappoint them. This leads to better preparation, more focus and generally a better result.
Now you know the background story about how I faced my own public speaking fears, and some tips you can take away to help yourself become more confident.
I wish you best of luck overcoming this challenge. You may never get completely over the fear or nerves, but I do hope you can find a place where can be yourself when talking in public. That always makes for the best presentation.
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Good luck with your presentations and maybe one day I’ll see you on stage.