My love for speaking in front of a crowd had a slow start. In 4th grade, at the age of 10, I had just started a new school and one of the first assignments was to memorize a Shel Silverstein poem and to recite it in front of the class. I chose "Sara Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out" because I thought it was hilarious and I imagined the whole class roaring in laughter. However, it was also one of the longer poems we could have selected and in the process of memorizing it I started to become anxious—what if I recited it out of order or said the wrong word? And worse--everyone would be looking at me!
So, on the day the poem recital was due, after recess instead of going back into class, I stayed on the recess yard and hid behind some trees. To my luck, no one noticed that I hadn’t returned from recess and I stayed out there for the rest of the school day by myself just to avoid reciting the poem in front of the class.
The next day, my anxiety had built up so much that instead of going to morning class and then hiding after recess, I hid in the trees the whole day! On the third day, I had a friend join me and we repeated hiding in the trees all day. When the other kids came out for recess, we had to hide from them otherwise they might blow our cover. I can’t recall for how long this went on for, but it was a while before anyone realized we were gone.
When I finally returned to class, I was scolded and given my first “F.” I didn’t care about the grade, though. It was worth it not to have to have everyone staring at me or to worry about reciting the poem wrong. For the rest of the school year, I learned that if I was extra quiet in class that the teacher wouldn't call on me. Teachers would often talk over me as if I wasn't there saying things like "the new girl is very shy." The truth was, I had never been called shy before in my life. What had happened is that I had tremendous anxiety and it was crippling me socially. I was basically ignored by the teachers and most of the kids. I felt invisible.
The next September, we moved back to the school and community I had grown up with where I was given a chance to become seen again. They were holding elections for student council and I had become tired of being called "shy" and ignored. I decided to run for student council President. To do so, I had to go to every classroom and give my speech. I was so nervous the night and morning before that I didn’t sleep or eat at all (which is not so rare for an adult but was especially rare for me at age 11).
Nonetheless, the thought of being invisible for the rest of my life upset me enough to want to break out of the label of “ shy” and to go for it. I started with my own homeroom class, got up to the front with my notecards and read the speech. I took to heart some advice my mom had given me the night before while practicing: she told me that the most interesting speeches were those where the speaker is having fun. (That piece of advice lives in me to this day). So I spoke loudly, laughed, made eye contact with my peers, and repeated the speech and energy about 18 times at all of the different classrooms and the next day I was elected student council President. What a difference that was from the year before! The highlight of the year was being driven in a convertible in our city's parade. I realized I liked to be seen and I certainly wasn't shy.
I have been doing public speaking ever since. I gave the commencement address at graduate school and keynote many business conferences. Last year I had the great honor of being asked to give the alumni address for the psychology department at my beloved University of Oregon in front of thousands. I got special permission to bring my daughter, Océane on stage with me and she sat between the Dean and I. After my speech and when the students came up to receive their diplomas many of them shook her hand as they received their diploma. This was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Now I still get nervous when I speak but I am acutely aware that for me, speaking is a remedy for fear. The fear of public speaking is so great that there is even a term for it “Glossophobia” which is fear of public speaking or speaking in general. As any good psychologist knows, the best way to eradicate a fear is to use a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy called “Systematic Desensitization” which is based on classical conditioning. In Systematic Desensitization, fears are eradicated by slowly being exposed from small fears to great fears. For example, in the case of fear of public speaking, an example treatment would be to start with speaking aloud in groups, them move onto disagreeing with someone, then to giving a toast, then to giving a small talk, to a large workshop and repeating the more difficult steps as much as possible.
Therefore, I see public speaking as free therapy! I also remind myself that anxiety and excitement are very similar neurologically so when I start to feel anxious, I think about how excited I am to be given the opportunity to share research. Other personal benefits include learning to be comfortable with all aspects of myself (because being uncomfortable on stage is a definite no-no), connecting with others, and being an example that if a dorky nerd like me can do it, so can anyone.
I'm acutely aware of the lack of women speakers at every business conference I keynote at. Often, I am the only female speaker. As political leadership is often the arena where we witness the most powerful roles, we can look to politics to reflect on women's power. We have a long way to go. For example, in January 2014, there were only nine women Heads of State and only 15 Heads of Government. Moreover, only 21.8 per cent of national Members of Parliament are women. Therefore, I see public speaking as kind of duty.
Public speaking is a way of communicating leadership. Since we are all experts at what we do and the benefits of public speaking are immense, I challenge you to get yourself out there! Do it for yourself, do it for others! I've included the tried-and-true 5 Steps to Powerful Speaking. Onward!
Author Jennifer Johnston-Jones, Ph.D. is an Organizational Psychologist, CEO of Disruptive Innovation and Author of the upcoming book Athena Rising: Women, Power and Unapologetic Leadership being published in September 2016.
Hiding in the recess yard to avoid pubic speaking at age 10.
Age 11: Scared as hell but I did it anyway.
Age 41: It still scares me, but I love it!
5 Steps to Powerful Speaking
1. Get Over Yourself.
You are nervous to be in front of a crowd; people are nervous all the time. Every person in the audience has their own anxieties and challenges. This is one of the many advantages of being a psychologist, you realize that people have so much going on that they are rarely focused on anyone but themselves. Knowing this can be very advantageous when you are in front of a large crowd. A trick I use is to choose someone in the front row who appears a bit anxious or unhappy and imagine all that person is worried about in their life. I then challenge myself to lift up their energy during my talk. I make frequent eye contact with this person and smile often at them. I use this person as a kind of litmus test for how well I am doing. After all, it's not about you (the speaker) it's about the audience. You were selected to relay information and energy. I'll repeat: it's not about you. It's for them.
2. Don't Make People Uncomfortable by Being Uncomfortable.
Another social fact that psychologists are keenly aware of is that emotions are contagious. When speaking in front of a crowd, the emotion that the speaker has is largely mirrored in the audience. When I start to feel nervous, I remind myself of how annoying it would be if I made hundreds or thousands of people anxious. I remind myself that here is an incredible opportunity to give the audience an emotional experience they want to feel and all I have to do is feel that onstage. Of course, this is easier said than done. Often I really want to feel confident and strong but that darn anxiety is flooding my brain with cortisol. In that case I use the "Anxiety as Excitement" knowledge that both of these emotions are very similar neurologically and I use the anxiety to tap into the excitement of the opportunity.
3. Get to the Point.
I learned this the hard way. When I first started to give professional talks, I used to go on and on about the research and studies and why they were so great. Once, I took twenty minutes to talk about a study when I could have delivered the learning point in 90 seconds. This came from a lack of confidence and feeling like I had to prove my eligibility as a speaker. It was obvious that no one cared about the details of the research except for myself. Some of my earlier talks were based more on me proving myself as an expert rather than delivering a kick-ass message for how the research applies to the people in the audience. So, I've learned to cut to the chase and get to the point, which also comes in very handy with national tv interviews where the attention span of the viewers is even less!
4. Make them Emotional
When psychologists have clients who get teary eyed in session, it is often seen as a breakthrough. The same goes for speaking. I know if I get the audience to any height of emotion, I've done a good job. Often, this is best accomplished when telling a story.
5. Energy is Power: Go BIG or go home
I learned this from Tony Robbins. I first heard him speak in 7th grade. He was my friend's step-father and he was just getting his speaking career started. He would offer his speaking to local schools and since his step-daughter was at my school, I was lucky enough to see him speak at age 14. I saw him again in person just last month. He truly is the best speaker I have ever seen. Why? His energy is huge! His voice is loud and unapologetic and he fills the space with his energy. The audience can't help but be hypnotized by him. Of course, this takes courage and a hell of a lot of confidence. I have been gradually building up this energy and with every talk I give, I allow my energy to get bigger and I have to say, it's even more powerful than the words being delivered. It's a powerful tool.
I hope this has been helpful to you. Please share on your social networks and let me know what you think by leaving your comments!