I admit it. I’m a perfectionist, which means I’m very self-critical and tend to over analyze everything. This personality attribute nearly crippled me whenever I was placed in the public eye, whether I was walking around a busy mall full of my peers, playing the piano with anyone else in the room, or when I was speaking in front of a group of any size.
When I was twelve I was asked to play an intro piano piece for a church service. As a perfectionist, I spent the month leading up to the performance practicing the song until I could play it with my hands behind my back while my eyes were closed.
When I finally stood up to walk toward the church’s piano, absolute fear gripped me and refused to let go. I allowed its grip to tighten by starting a vicious cycle of self doubt: “What if I lose my place while reading the sheet music?” “What will people think of me if I bomb this?” “What will that cute new girl in the second pew think of me?” Etc, etc, etc.
I sat down on the piano bench and depressed a completely wrong set of notes, pulled my hands back for a few seconds and attempted the feat again with the same error. After several attempts at completing the first chord, my mom walked up and tried to help, which of course embarrassed me beyond recovery and forced me to shamefully walk back to my pew, never having played the first chord.
Is preparing oneself for a publicly viewed event a pointless endeavor?
Of course not! Many people practice their presentation too little. The point is that I allowed the fear of what people would think of me to consume all of my mental processing ability, rendering me physically unable to perform the task at hand.
Wanting to be socially accepted is a fundamental desire of anyone who has ever lived and ever will live. In many ways that desire keeps society functioning. “If I rob a bank and get caught, I’ll be in the evening news and lose all my friends.” “If I punch my boss in the face I’ll be fired, go viral on YouTube, and forever be known as ‘that guy’.”
The desire to be socially accepted fuels the economy through the sale of makeup, clothing, cars, homes, treadmills, and designer diapers.
We buy what we think will increase the odds of others looking favorably upon us. Let’s face it: the human race is self-conscious and insecure, which is precisely why most people would rather face death than have to speak or perform publicly.
Taking a public speaking class in high school and giving countless class presentations in college forced me to learn public speaking etiquette: Don’t speak in monotone. Use only a few short bullet points per slide. Look at your audience. Don’t fidget. Eliminate filler words like ‘um’s and aah’s. Don’t go over the time limit. Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them.
After mastering the checklist of public speaking do’s and don’ts, I received A’s on all my class presentations and multiple complements from fellow classmates, but I realized I had become a Jedi Master of publicly suppressing my fear. The hours leading up to a presentation were absolute torture and a symphony of stress. I’d find myself drinking Guinness in the shower while listening to Coldplay in an effort to relax, but it rarely worked.
Graduate school perpetuated the parade of class presentation assignments and correlated episodes of fear, especially the fear of what my peers and grade-pen-wielding professor would think of me. For the first year of grad school the cycle continued. Then another variable was introduced.
I purchased a preowned Mazda Miata convertible with original baby blue paint. The Miata is a very small two seater roadster that is considered by most to be a “chicks’ car”, and the baby blue color of my Miata certainly strengthened the stereotype. I soon found myself shooing away curious little girls who would approach the car for a closer look because I really didn’t feel like being accused as a pedophile and sent to prison. Men often criticized my vehicle choice, and I suspect secretly questioned my romantic preference of genders (yes, I’m straight).
For the first few weeks of driving my stereotype-on-wheels I was incredibly self-conscious, not just because of the model and color of the vehicle I was driving, but also due to the fact that everyone notices you in a convertible. People have a tendency to stare. Everything you do is noticed by others since there’s no roof to conceal your actions. People watch when you apply lip balm, make a call, fix your wind blown hair at the stoplight, or blow your nose. In short, everything you do in a convertible is observed by the general public.
After several weeks, I found myself becoming less and less self conscious about what people thought of me. I found myself remaining aware of their existence in the name of roadway safety, but automatically began ignoring the stares, which consequently eliminated my fear of what they may be thinking of me.
The date of a mandatory hour-long class presentation had arrived, and I woke up that day expecting to experience the same symptoms of stress and fear to which I had grown accustomed in the hours leading up to having to speak in public. Surprisingly, the usual feelings barely manifested themselves, which meant Coldplay would have to wait another day.
Soon I was facing an audience of peers and was momentarily taken off guard by the unusual lack of fear I had grown so accustomed to suppressing. While there was a small blip of nervousness on my mental radar, it simply helped keep me focused on the task at hand, which was to deliver the best presentation of the semester.
The biggest roadblock to public speaking isn’t external variables. It’s internal doubt and fear.
Don’t dwell on past failures and allow fear to cultivate. Don’t allow the “what if” cycle of questioning to start. Don’t RSVP to the invitations that Old Man Self-Conscious sends you. Approach the stage with confidence, and train yourself to become numb to the stares of the audience. You don’t care what they think of you, and you’ve got a convertible to thank for that.
Drive topless and speak with confidence!
Neil Brennan is a 24 year old entrepreneur and co-founder of a 3D-printing company: 3DBakery in Ohio, maker of the patent-pending CallingCube™ business card. His interests include warm climates, french pressed coffee and the snooze button.
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