My Shell Theory of Public Speaking

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]

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  • June 23, 2010 at 8:16 am

    Great post. Here in Italy public speaking is quite disregard, even if it's a important element of careers.
    I'm a shy person who loves public speaking. I've focused on it since university given my attitude to share knowledge and ideas with other. Speak to a public is a great opportunity to feel free and tell about my work. It happens to me to speak to a small audience quite often, during conference. Sometimes there is an additional problem: the language. But even here, the only solution is try and learn by mistakes. At the end the important thing is give the core message.
    I've never learn by postcasts, your is a great suggestion.
    Thanks to your previsious post, I made a presentation during the Ignite Roma. Any opportunity is good to work on public speaking persona tecniques and on ideas.

    • June 23, 2010 at 11:27 am

      Congratulations on your Ignite Roma talk, Rossella! It's such a fun format and my experience at Ignite Ottawa is what inspired me to do more public speaking. You're right, we need to practice to get better and more confident and learn from our mistakes. We have a saying, “practice makes perfect”.

      Thanks for your comment and good luck with your next presentation!

  • June 23, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Well done Sue. I agree that “studying the masters” is a time honoured and very effective way of improving any skill. But there is a second way that can compliment or follow passive study.

    I will use your car example: What would you have learned simply by watching someone drive a standard car? Some. What if you were able to get an expert to diagram all of the parts and what they do, answer questions and really explain the choices they make each step of the way? Much more.

    P.S. Is a video of your PAB2010 talk available anywhere? For study purposes of course! I will have questions. 😉

    • June 23, 2010 at 11:30 am

      The videos will be posted on soon. Interested to hear your take on my video and photography analogies.

      Good point – Talking to the masters, asking them questions is also extremely useful. Most of the time though, they are so busy we just need to buy their books instead. 😉

  • June 23, 2010 at 10:58 am

    Thanks for this Suze. We can also learn a lot from watching records of our own talks like athletes watch tapes of their previous play in order to improve. “What was I doing with my hands!? That facial expression is really distracting.” This kind of very specific-to-us guidance helps a lot.

    • June 23, 2010 at 11:31 am

      Very true. I'm looking forward to seeing the video from PAB-even though I'm sure I'll be cringing all the way through it!

  • June 23, 2010 at 11:52 am

    I absolutely love speaking in public, even though I still get a bit nervous. I love the rewarding feeling you get when you've really reached an audience.

    Interestingly, I track my comfort behind a microphone back to my days in university and shortly thereafter playing in a band. We started out trying desperately to look, act and sound like a band. I remember after we did one of our first performances, one song at an open mic night, I emailed everyone in the group apologizing for making one mistake. A single wrong note and I was bent out of shape about it.

    But, like you said, we learned to get over ourselves. One piece of feedback we got a lot as a band was that we looked like we were having a blast (we were) and it felt more like watching your friends goofing off than watching a band perform. By the end, we got a bit of reputation as a really crowd friendly act, largely because we got over ourselves. We'd flub a note and break into laughter about it. We'd berate each other on stage (in good fun) and get on with it.

    Now when I'm given the opportunity to speak, I take that mentality with me. People relate to honesty. I'm not an expert in any given field so I don't try to look or sound like one. Instead I try to share stories, relate experiences and generally have a good time when I'm speaking.

    There's a lot of pomposity among professional speakers – some pull it off and some don't. I know that I can't so I don't even try.

    • June 23, 2010 at 12:17 pm

      Joe, you're right – it's all a performance. I too, have sung on stage
      in bands, choirs, quartets. I even dabbled in acting in high school
      (shhh don't tell anyone ;)). Getting over yourself is probably the
      best thing anyone can do to improve their ability to perform on a stage.

      And…it's official. Pomposity is my new favourite word. Pomposity.

  • June 23, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Well, I believe that you were once shy – in spades – because I saw it with my own eyes – and it has been such of special kind of joy to see you come out of your shell……….I love that you learned much of your technique from TED………………..another reason to recommend this great site! I had forgotten about the first car thing – but it was probably one of the things – conquering the stupid clutch thing – that propelled you on to bigger and better conquests. You go girl!

    • June 23, 2010 at 6:22 pm

      Yes, if anyone doesn't believe that I used to be very shy, you can just ask Sandy. She's got a lot of good goop on me. 🙂

  • July 4, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    Congratulations. It is great to hear about someone going through a transition like this. I am another huge fan of public speaking. Not so I can hear my own voice, but so I can do exactly what you said towards the end of your article – present content passionately.

    There is something else I am sure you learned that you didn't mention: Public speaking got easier with practice. Watching all of those TEDtalks is one thing, but to really get good you have stand up and do it. And once you do it the first time, the 2nd time will be easier. etc. etc.

    Keep up the great work. May both of our speaking paths cross one day.

  • […] like Podcamps and PAB have literally changed my life. I’m a better writer now. I’m a public speaker. I’m teaching others how to work and play and grow their businesses with digital […]



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