When I began my career I was terrified of public speaking. I would sweat. A lot. In a futile attempt to avoid sweat stains I would take a wad of toilet paper and tape it into my armpits.
The end result of that would just be more sweat, and after a presentation I would have to remove a wad of sweaty toilet paper from my underarms—along with a bit of hair when the tape came off.
Toilet paper in your armpits is not one of the strategies for getting over a fear of public speaking.
However, my fear of public speaking began to diminish and eventually leave after I spoke in front of my toughest audience. It wasn’t something I chose to do, but it taught me a good lesson: if you want to overcome a fear, a good way to do it is to face it in the hardest environment possible.
A F***ing Know-Nothing Punk
My first real job, the one that set me on the path I’m on, was working for a program that provided housing and employment opportunities to homeless veterans. It is still the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.
It is also still the toughest job I’ve ever had.
One of my duties was to visit homeless camps and soup kitchens to let veterans know about the program. We were a startup and I got assigned this task because there was literally no one else to do it. The veterans I spoke to had a lot of reasons to dislike me. I was really young, and not a vet. And though our organization was not the VA, we were located on VA grounds. And, though the media might make it seem otherwise, veterans have had problems with the VA for a very long time.
I embodied a lot of things that these veterans did not regard as positive.
After a few months on the job I learned about a Monday night dinner hosted by the local First Baptist Church. I contacted the church and they asked if I would speak at the next dinner and talk about our program.
The next Monday night I taped up my armpits and went to speak.
I got in front of the crowd and began talking about what our program did and how a veteran became eligible. It was then that I heard, from the table immediately in front of the podium, a man repeating the words “F***ing Know-Nothing Punk”, over and over. Like a chant. For a solid 5 minutes. He said it softly enough that not a lot of other people heard, but loud enough that I heard it clearly.
I made it through the speech and left that night, went home, took the toilet paper out of my armpits, and seriously questioned my career choices.
A few weeks later I met the man from the table. His name was Dave, and he had decided he was interested in the program. He was a recovering alcoholic who wanted to make some positive changes in his life. He apologized for the night at the church, and I ended up liking Dave, a lot. He had the same name as my dad and was a genuinely good guy.
More than anything, Dave did me a huge favor. After that night speaking in front of a crowd just seemed a lot easier. I’ve been in front of rough crowds since then, but have never faced someone cursing me in the form of a rhythmic chant.
When you read articles on getting over a fear of public speaking they will give you a lot of useful advice, including:
- Be prepared.
- Record yourself.
- Remember that people can’t see your nervousness.
- Remember that the information is the star of the show, not you.
Remember all of those things. They will help. But nothing conquers a fear like facing that fear in one of its scariest forms. If you have a fear of public speaking, or presenting, consider taking an opportunity to do it in an environment that you know will intimidate you.
It might be hard, but you will learn a lot.
I don’t know what became of Dave. The issues facing homeless veterans are complex, and most of the veterans we served ended up relapsing and leaving the program. Dave was one of those vets.
But I hope he’s doing well, and maybe sitting an office somewhere reading this, thinking, “That guy still doesn’t know a darn thing. But he turned out okay.”
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About the Author: Dustin McKissen is Director of Operations and Marketing for Metacred, the nation’s first credentialing management firm, and a company with a great culture! He is also a proud member of LinkedIn’s Publishers and Bloggers Group. You can find him on Twitter @DMcKissen.