I’m a shy person. People don’t believe me when I say that – but it’s 100% true.

Shyness is the tendency to withdraw out of fear. The key word there is “tendency”. Outgoingness is about avoiding that tendency. Outgoing as I may be, my tendency towards shy behaviour is still there. Shyness is part of my psyche – and something I have to contend with every single day of my life. I have a theory about shyness – my “Shell Theory” – that with the right approach, anyone is able to break out of their shell.

For me, the last great frontier of overcoming my shyness has been public speaking. The fear of public speaking is often cited as the number one fear among adults in the U.S. – ahead of death. There was a time in my life when the thought of picking up the phone to order a pizza was enough to send me into a panic attack. Standing on a stage, speaking in front of people? Forget about it. When a situation would arise where I’d have to speak in front of people, I’d be so nervous that I’d mess up and fumble badly and I wouldn’t get my point across at all.

Today, I adore public speaking. In fact, I’m doing more and more of it all the time. So how did I break out of my shell? Well, it wasn’t easy, but if public speaking is something you wish you could do more confidently, here’s a little advice.

Knowledge is power. In 1992 when I bought my first car, I decided I wanted a standard transmission, because I’d been told standards are more fun to drive. And since I find driving kind of boring, I thought anything I could do to spice things up would be useful. The problem was, once I got behind the wheel, I couldn’t drive the stupid car to save my life! I stalled, ground, and jerked my way around town, all the while worrying that I was doing some serious damage.

My problem was, I didn’t understand HOW the clutch, gas, and stick shift worked together. I was more or less guessing at the best way to drive the car, and obviously, my guess wasn’t right. So, I called up a friend who happened to be a bit of a mechanical nerd, and asked him to sit down with me and explain, on paper, how a transmission actually worked. He did, and lo and behold, the next time I got behind the wheel, it was smooth sailing.

I took the same approach to public speaking. I knew I had some issues, so I decided to learn how to do it better. I started watching exceptional professional speakers, like Christopher Penn, Mitch Joel, and Seth Godin. I voraciously consumed TEDTalks. I wasn’t listening to the content, I was watching what they do. I was looking at flow, how they worked with visuals, mannerisms, and intonation. Some talks I watched over and over. I started to inject some of what I learned about HOW to speak into my own talks. And it started to work.

Learn by observation. Find people you admire, and study what they do. Don’t copy them exactly, but do take away the things that work. You’ll soon find that you’re able to emulate the masters fairly well. But do make sure that you’re always being yourself, and putting your own spin on things.

Get over yourself. I believe that the number one reason people are afraid to speak in public is because they care really deeply about what others think of them. They are scared to do or say something that will make them look silly. Fear of humiliation is a powerful thing, and unfortunately, most people are too afraid to do anything about it.

The only reason I am able to get up on a stage and talk these days is because I decided to stop caring so much about what other people think. Most of the things we worry about, like that people are going to make fun of us, never, EVER happen. And if it’s not likely to happen, there’s absolutely no point in worrying about it.

So, tell yourself what I tell myself when I start to get nervous about a public appearance. Suck it up, cupcake – this is what you want to do. Just go do it and, as my Dad would say, quit yer bellyachin’. You’ll find that once you stop the voices in your head from telling you all the reasons you CAN’T do it, all the reasons you CAN do it will be crystal clear.

Let go. I was fortunate to speak at the Podcasters Across Borders conference this past weekend in Ottawa. If you are a content creator, you owe it to yourself to attend in 2011 – it’s an amazing experience. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on stage, but I will confess to being just a tad more nervous than usual. I find it’s harder to present in a room full of people I know than a room full of strangers. Also, I was up second last, so I’d already had a full weekend of amazing talks to compare myself to. But, instead of letting the pressure get to me, I decided to use it. I let go of the nerves and used the residual adrenaline that my anxiety had created to add more energy to my talk. Feedback suggests that my strategy worked.

After I was done, I was spent. It was a bit comical, actually – I was more clumsy than usual, and couldn’t put a sentence together to save my life, which makes it plenty of fun when all anyone wants to do at that point is make conversation. However, I was able to find 20 minutes or so to decompress, and let go of the experience. I didn’t criticize myself for my word fumbles, or worry about the fact that I missed a few points here and there. I let it go, and didn’t concern myself with anything else other than it had been an enjoyable experience and something I wanted to do again.

Most of all, public speaking, to me, is about learning and sharing. I learn SO much in the process of preparing to teach a class or do a talk. The preparation process really helps me to piece my thoughts together, and to truly understand the subject matter. Then, it’s all about passionately sharing what I’ve learned with my audience.

What more could a girl ask for?

The following message is brought to you by Shameless Self Promotion. If you’re interested in learning more about the kinds of things I speak about, or maybe even booking me for a gig, feel free to check out my speaking page.

[photo credit: Suzanne Ure on Flickr]