Re-learning how to speak

Anyone who follows me on my various social media platforms has probably noticed a few speaking gigs recently. The most interesting thing to me is at of all the things I know, all the things I have done, all things I am passionate about, what I’ve been asked to speak about recently is confidence in public speaking… Me!

For those of you looking on from the outside, this may not seem like a big deal, because apparently to the world I seem like a confident public speaker. But the truth is I have dealt with terrible stage fright for over 30 years.

It all started when I was about 12. Picture it…

No, seriously. I’m sitting in English Literature class, my heart absolutely shattered. I’ve just been told that my beautiful heartfelt poem is just read out loud was too clichéd. What my teacher didn’t know or realise was that my poem was about the death of a schoolmate. She had died over the summer vacation and she was the first person I knew my age who had died.

I stopped writing poetry after that. I stopped singing on stage. I stopped speaking in public.

Whenever I would stand up in front of people to speak, sing, play steel pan, my stomach would churn, my heart would race, my skin would feel hot, my throat would close. So I just didn’t.

But then life intervened. My work kept putting me in front of audiences, large and small. So I started to speak, but I still hated every second of it. I had to work up the courage every single time.

I did learn to mask some of my nervousness, but context made some scenarios much more terrifying than others.

I did try to fix it. I joined Toastmasters (twice). And it helped with some of the masking. I learnt about controlling my gestures and body language to remove some of the nervous tics. I learnt how to monitor and then remove my filler sounds (umms and ahhs). I learnt how to better structure my speaking to make sure I was making sense.

But the fright? That never left. But now I was good enough at masking it that people didn’t even believe me when I explained.

But earlier this year, I finally found something that worked. A programme that helped me understand that I can trust myself to speak, and trust that my audience wants good things for me. It helped me learn how to recover from mistakes (that no one else even knew about) and how to relax into speaking.

Ultraspeaking is an amazing programme that starts with the mental work needed to be a confident speaker. It focuses on the mindset you need to speak confidently, the vulnerability of putting yourself into your speaking, the tools to be engaging.

I still have work to do, and I am still practising every time I speak. But the biggest lesson I got from the programme is that we all know how to speak, we do it every day. But we put on this “speaker” persona that brings its own rules about how we “should” speak (speech mode, anyone?), because we think of speaking as this special skill.

So I have spent much of this year, unlearning and re-learning how to speak.

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