I step up in front of my sophomore English class, barely able to speak as I stumbled across my words. I was terrified in front of 20 people. Fast forward to college. I knew that I wanted to start a company, and that in my company I wanted to be a leader. I wanted to be able to stand in front of the team in times good and bad, to inspire and rally the troops. To be this leader I knew I would have to conquer my fear of public speaking.
To this end, my friend Jay and I started the Public Speaking Club. We recruited on campus and gathered a group of people who were also terrified of public speaking, along with a few speaking veterans. We practiced every single week, meeting religiously in a classroom at night in the basement of a building that looked like a castle, breaking into groups and giving practice speeches to each other. We were a small group of rogues, all equally awkward but unwilling to surrender, determined to become eloquent at the pedestal. We watched videos of great speakers, read books on speaking, and even brought in outside experts such as the Dale Carnegie group to instruct us.
During that year I saw tremendous growth in some of the members of our club, including myself. I began volunteering to speak in front of people whenever possible. I did the reading at church a few times in front of about a hundred people. But this was easy because I just had to read. We finished the year and public speaking club ended for me, but I joined Toastmasters after college to continue to improve.
Two years later, the company I cofounded was acquired, and I find myself working in a large company. A few days ago an email arrived from my boss. "Evan, can you present Wednesday?...". Wednesday was the technology all-hands meeting. There would be over a thousand people in the audience. "Yes", I replied.
This morning was the event. I had spent years preparing for today. I had five minutes, and I was the last presenter. My presentation was a minor part of the whole show, and probably wasn't something anyone will ever remember. Despite this knowledge, I felt nervous. But once I stepped on stage it all went away.
Now I won't pretend that I was eloquent. But the one thing I wasn't was scared. I got in front of that group of people, stared them in the eyes, stood tall, and spoke. I spoke naturally. As I talked, I saw the opportunity to make a joke. It must be as a wolf feels, crouched, ready to launch at his prey. I pounced, and made my joke (I was making fun of salespeople, obviously, something technologists seem to appreciate). The audience laughed! I made another joke, a few chuckles. At that point I knew I was fine. I continued my demo, stole a few cheap laughs by throwing in a "please work!" at a key moment when my demo was loading, and soon enough was walking off the stage.
As I walked off stage I knew my delivery was nothing other than ordinary. Although many of my coworkers said "great job", I have much work to do to truly be able to give a great speech. Still, I was able to present my material, and my own personality, without being paralyzed by fear.
I don't think I've ever truly felt proud of myself until today, when years of preparation resulted in this small, but measurable, success. I definitely would not have have been able to face that room without preparation.
Fear is a debilitating thing. Every day people make decisions dictated by fear, choose not to pursue their dreams for fear of failure. I recommend making a change right now to conquer those fears that you harbor; there is no feeling quite like it.