If you’re anything like me or a large number of people (I am NOT alone), you dislike public speaking. And when I say dislike it in reference to myself, I mean hate, avoid, detest, abhor, loathe, really any of the above. I have a memory of being in what I’m pretty sure was third grade and reading a poem in front of the class… pretty sure I was also dressed like Peggy Fleming complete with pink leg warmers but my brain may be failing me there. Instead of reading the poem, I actually cried until the teacher left me alone.
It’s a strange thing to have a fear of even if it is extremely common. If I can speak freely on a conference call or sitting at a table, where does the anxiety come in if I have to stand up? What’s the real difference? In my rational mind, there isn’t one. But that hasn’t stopped me from feeling like I’m going to pass out or forget the English language given the opportunity.
As far back as I can remember I have been avoiding any type of speaking in a public situation. In college, I would drop a class if I discovered an oral presentation was any part of the syllabus. I’ve managed to push myself through group presentations if forced but always dreaded them before, during and after. Growing up, it wasn’t something I saw as an issue… just something I wasn’t going to do.
In my professional life, my priorities have changed a bit. It is the only thing I feel will hold me back if I let it. When it comes to my experience, my input and my overall intelligence, I know what I’m talking about (or at least I think I do which is half the battle). But if I can’t speak to it in a formal setting then it’s all a bit wasted. I actually took a public speaking course last year which I think helped a bit but hasn’t alleviated all anxiety. It’s more about managing it than eliminating it… so they say.
As my 30th birthday approached last week, here it was. My manager sat on my desk on Monday morning smiling.
We have a large new business pitch coming up on Friday for a global beer client… and I want you to lead it. I also really want this business so… no pressure.
My immediate reaction? I want to leap from this building. I want to announce that I refuse to turn 30 years old and I want catapult myself into the East River in protest. Maybe I will wear a cape while I do it or a V for Vendetta mask to protest… public speaking?
While my initial reaction was one of pure dread I also thought to myself… here it is. I’m going to be 30 years old on Saturday and I need to kick this problem. I need to get over this and stop letting it hold me back. I could not decide if this was horrible timing or perfect timing being the day before my birthday.
Our team worked on the presentation all week. Making changes almost every hour based on new client feedback… your typical ‘We said we wanted that, but we really wanted this’ edits. The night before the pitch, I think I slept for a total of one hour. I rolled around in bed imagining every terrible scenario and actually thought to myself, if I can’t do this, my career is going to be ruined. Even my inner monologue is dramatic. Like, buddy, shut up much?
On Friday morning I sat at my desk going over the slides in my head. Over and over and over. While everyone has that inner voice in their head, I have several. I have one voice that tells me I can’t do it and I have another voice, most likely implanted there by my mother, that says, just do it. Stop complaining and DO it.
The meeting was scheduled for 4pm on Friday afternoon. Which, um what? Who schedules a new business meeting then? Really? Awesome.
By the time we got in the car to go uptown, I was almost, dare I say it, excited? I was going to do this and I was going to do it well. Or I was going to crash and burn in a spectacular fashion but either way I was going to try. This was my Mad Men moment.
As we sat down in the conference room in their 19th floor office, which is complete with a circular bar and a happy hour going on near us (it apparently doesn’t suck to work for a beer brand), I was nervous but in control. There was no escaping this situation so I might as well own it.
As the pitch began, believe it or not, I didn’t choke, I didn’t forget how to speak and I didn’t faint. After the first slide a lot of my jitters started to subside. I wouldn’t say I actually enjoyed it but it wasn’t nearly as terrible as I had imagined. I would say I did well. And the feeling of having successfully presented to this client may be one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever felt.
As we were walking out, the feeling of accomplishment and having proved to myself I could do something I previously wouldn’t have wanted to do – incredible. And oddly enough, I think over time I might actually enjoy presenting. Let’s not say I’m a pro but maybe I could be one day.
All I know is the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It was a birthday present to me. Happy 30th!