By Sarah Zandbergen, Senior Program Specialist, stnce
My knees are shaking, palms sweaty. My mouth is dry and the room is a blur. I’m 16 years old and I’m about to speak to my English class about a book I just read. I stand and walk to the front of the room. I try to speak. My voice wavers. My knees shake even more. I pull out my teacher’s chair to sit down, telling him “If I don’t sit, I’ll fall”.
The above story is true, and it probably sounds pretty relatable to those who fear public speaking. It’s an old statistic (and the preamble to a Jerry Seinfeld joke) that people’s number one fear is public speaking, and death is number two. I can identify with that feeling, and I know many of my colleagues who likely could as well. I’ve never been the first to raise my hand to present in class when I was younger, and that old habit followed me to my career. I make my living planning and executing events*, so I’m behind the scenes quite a bit. I organize sessions for my partners in the sales department to go out and speak in front of crowds, and I wear black so I can blend into the background when I’m adjusting a mic, fixing a banner, or finding an extra chair for a tardy guest. I strive to be invisible.
When stnce was born, I was excited to be part of it, but again I took a behind the scenes role. I volunteered to write editorials, I planned and executed a successful launch party with my team, and I gave my input on social posts. Everything was going really well for stnce, and I was thrilled. Then, something started happening to me. I started speaking up in meetings. I started talking. To strangers. My closest colleague told me she had never seen such passion in me until she saw me speak about stnce. And she was right. I was beyond cloud nine, beyond over the moon, outside of the galaxy passionate about this movement pioneered by my SVP. Hand me the megaphone, I’m ready to shout it from the rooftops!
And then I was handed a megaphone.
A metaphorical megaphone, of course. I was finishing up an event the company had hosted for some clients and was talking with some colleagues, including my SVP, who just happens to be the founder of stnce. We were discussing the topic that fills so many people with dread – public speaking. I don’t know if it was the intoxicating summer breeze or my passion for stnce, but I found my hand going up. I was volunteering to speak at an event. In front of people I respected. My 16 year old voice piped up with a resounding “you can’t do that!” to which I responded “Watch me”. Of course, this bravado was mostly fake, because inside I was trembling, but fake it ‘til you become it, right?
Something that keeps coming up in conversations around board room tables when our team meets is: “When is the moment we stop being confident?” When we learn to walk, we have all the confidence in the world. We get up, we take a step, we fall, we get up again. We keep getting up until we get it right. And look at us now – professional walkers, all of us. So why can’t the same be true of other things? As children, when we’re learning our first words, we will say that first word to anyone and everyone who will listen. But as we grow and change and learn, we start protecting those precious words. We stop believing people want to hear them. One thing I truly believe contributes to that feeling is when the word “can’t” is introduced into our vocabulary. Suddenly, not everything is possible. Determination and endurance are replaced by hesitation and fear. And those feelings follow us like a shadow into our adult lives.
I spent weeks preparing to speak in front of a group of 50 professionals in my industry. I was nervous, to say the least. Prominent individuals from my company, and our partner’s companies would be there. I had to succeed. There was no choice. Over the weeks, the number of attendees grew. 50 turned into 100, which turned into 171 at final count. I practiced my speech in front of anyone who would listen. I practiced on my own at home. I practiced on the train. I practiced until I knew the material cold. Then I put down my cue cards and immediately froze. I knew the material. I knew that I knew it. But I couldn’t think of the words. The words of my presentation were replaced by these words – What if I mess up? What if I forget that word? Oh, THAT word is so important, I can’t forget that. Oh man, what if I say that name wrong? What if everyone laughs? What if I freeze on stage? I’ll let down my entire company. And the worst one – I don’t deserve to be up there.
The moment that changed everything for me isn’t what you might think. One evening, after dinner, my partner and I were sitting at the kitchen table, and I asked him (for what felt like the billionth time) if I could practice my speech in front of him once again. He asked me to watch a TED Talk first. The subject matter wasn’t confidence, or public speaking, or finance. The matter at hand? Paper towel. Yes, you read that right. Paper towel. This Ted Talk from 2012 features lawyer Joe Smith, educating the world on one small thing we need to do to conserve resources and go one step further to save our planet. Smith speaks for just over four minutes, and spends a lot of that time showcasing his paper towel technique. It’s a comical and enlightening talk, but after watching it I was no more confident than I had been before. My partner smiled, and said “Ok, why did I show you this?” I shook my head, baffled (and slightly annoyed). We watched the talk again, and it came to me. Within the first minute of his presentation, Smith offers up a statistic, and the statistic is incorrect. He doesn’t falter, he doesn’t run offstage, he doesn’t demand a do-over, and no one boos. He simply corrects himself and continues. And that’s when it all became clear to me. If you’re passionate and educated on what you’re speaking about, THAT’S where you get that confidence from. Believe in your subject matter, just like Joe Smith believes in his paper towel technique. That will shine through in your presentation, and your audience will respond. Authenticity and passion mean more to an audience than if you stick to your cue cards.
Weeks later when I stepped onto a podium in front of those 171 people, that’s exactly what I did. I tossed my cue cards to the side (ok, maybe I checked them once or twice) and I spoke from my heart about stnce, the movement that has encouraged me to speak up in meetings, to put my hand up and to learn and improve. I probably quoted a statistic incorrectly, and I may have forgotten a word or two, but my confidence was right there with me onstage.
*After this article was written, Sarah accepted the position of Senior Program Specialist for stnce