Feeling the fear and doing it anyway: how I overcame my fear of public speaking

Anne JohnstonBehind the lens2 Comments

Feeling the fear

It’s the morning after the night before, I’m riding the waves of a high after a successful speaking gig, feeling totally stoked and reflecting on just how much things have changed. You see, even a few years ago there’s no way I would have stood up and delivered a speech in a room full of people. I would rather have poked myself in the eye with a stick. But today, I’m feeling good and know that I’ve turned a corner.

Related content:

Feeling the fear and doing it anyway: how I overcame my fear of public speaking

I started out in life as a glum baby, the one that horrified anyone that dared to look at me in my pram. Yes, people, you know it today as resting bitch face and I’ve been rocking that look for the best part of 36 years. What nobody knew then was I had a heart problem and was in a lot of difficulty, I just couldn’t say it and then I had life-saving surgery when I was 18 months old. Did that solve the RBF? No, it turns out it’s just the way my face is when I’m thinking or in the zone so deal with it.

From there I was slow to develop, talk and walk and it took me a long time to come out of my shell but I did it. I managed to get through high school and come out the other side having been beat up and bullied about my flat nose, my bandy legs and the fact that I was a girl geek that loved tech. Just a few things to knock a girl’s confidence, huh? These days I embrace all these things because I’m happy in my own skin and geeks rock! But will I accept the Facebook friend request from the girl that had me down on the ground kicking the crap out of me while the boy heavies she brought along forcibly held my best friend back from trying to rescue me? I don’t need that kind of reminder in my life, thanks, but no.

Crippled by fear

Soon I was out in the big bad world, earning money, being an independent girl and life was good. Except that every time there was an opportunity to speak in a room full of people I crumbled. Sure, send me to Edinburgh to train as a PC trainer and teach a whole office full of people PC skills on-to-one, that was my comfort zone and I loved it. But ask me to get up in front of a room full of people on a team building day and speak on behalf of my table? I just couldn’t do it. Even when I was promoted and had to organise meetings for 50 people the idea of having to speak in front of them, even just a couple of rehearsed lines, it made me feel sick. What if I said the wrong thing? What if they judged me? What if they thought I was stupid?

It all started to change for me when I launched my business full time in April 2014. With a camera in my hand it became the tool to help me speak. To get the photos I needed I would have to stand up and direct 50+ people and somehow the camera made it easier for me.

My first speaking gig

A year later I was given my first speaking opportunity when I was asked to speak to Dundee & Angus College students as part of their Motivate Me Week. They wanted to hear from someone working in the photography industry to get real valuable insights and they’d heard lots of good things about me and seen me in action. Yay!

Yes, I had real hands-on practical business experience to offer but the fear of public speaking was rearing its ugly head and I took a couple of days to mull it over before accepting the invitation.

A good friend of mine and fellow photographer who has since sadly passed away, Jim Ratcliffe, gave me some advice and convinced me it was the right thing for me to do for my business and for my confidence too. He knew I was nervous and took me under his wing. He told me that at a basic level every story needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Sounds simple, right? He was also kind enough to take me along to his local speakers club where I met some really lovely people but I felt it just wasn’t for me.

I was going to do this one talk and then never commit to public speaking again. Ever.

A lack-lustre performance

So despite all my nerves, the day of the dreaded talk came. I knew what I was going to say, it was over in a flash, I had some really interesting questions and got really great feedback. But when I look back now I felt my delivery was rather lacking.

I was sitting on a table for the whole talk, I didn’t use any kind of presentation slides, I had paper notes which I referred to a few times to keep me on the right track and there was little in the way of audience participation. Oh, and to top it all off I ran over time for my session when it came to question time, with permission, but still, eugh. I came away feeling good and knowing that I could deliver a speech publicly but I cringe thinking about that first one now.

Fast forward a couple of years and I was contacted by Arbroath & District Amateur Photography Club and invited to talk to them about wedding photography. I didn’t even give it a second thought. Yip, I can do that, no problem. Book me in. Job’s a good’un.

So what had changed so much in those two years?

Well for starters I joined the Content Marketing Academy last summer and every day I’m so inspired by all the amazing things my fellow members are doing. I knew that I needed to get out there and speak publicly if I wanted to take my business to the next level and really become known in my industry. I learned that we all have fears but we have to embrace the messy and ride through it because if you’re not challenging yourself then you’re not moving forward.

I started off on Snapchat because it was fun, I could play around with silly filters and lenses and learn how to talk to the lens on my phone like it was a real person. But that’s not where my audience hang out. Then the CMA challenged us to do Facebook Live videos in October. You gotta be kidding me, right? Go on Facebook….. live…… with actual real people watching? It turns out I could do that and the more I did the easier it became.

Watch my first ever Facebook live video here

I’d also started teaching Photography and Lightroom for beginners last year and I think that really helped consolidate my knowledge and give me confidence and faith in what I’m saying. With blogging too, now I’m writing on a weekly basis and I have so many stories to tell and I’ve already written them so it doesn’t feel like I’m starting from nowhere when I’m thinking about public speaking.

I was chatting to fellow CMA member Pam Laird at a recent CMA workshop and she asked me if I do the public speaking thing and I replied confidently that yes I do and I had another gig coming up soon.

My whole attitude had changed. I believed in me.

My 2nd speaking gig

Last night’s gig felt a lot different and it was. I thought very clearly in advance about the message that I wanted to deliver and how I could help my audience.

I had my Google Slides prepared and with a Targus Laser Presentation Remote I wasn’t glued to the spot. I was free to move around. Thanks to fellow CMA member and brand designer guru Col Gray I had an awesome quote to use from Mark Schaefer as he’d been on Col’s webinar just a couple of weeks before.

I took along a few things that I thought would help the club to see in real life. There were sample wedding albums, Mark Schaefer’s book, The Content Code and a BlackRapid dual camera sling strap that I wear to carry my cameras at weddings. I started with a couple of questions right at the beginning of my talk to really grab their attention and I finished with a few words of advice to help inspire them. All in all a completely different experience for me and for them.

Before I knew it, my talk was over, I took some questions, finished up and looked at the time and it was 9pm. Bang on the end of the meeting. In my eyes it went so well that I was actually enjoying it (yes you read that correctly) but I’d forgotten to check the time at any point throughout. Although I’d rehearsed my talk there were a couple of stories I’d added in to respond to questions so my talk was longer than I expected. Definitely a point to remember for future. I also dropped my Targus remote but it was cool. We had a giggle about it.

I drove home feeling really good in myself, knowing that I’d upped my game and my fears about public speaking are a thing of the past. Sure I know I’ll feel a little nervous on the day of my next talk but it’s a different kind of nerves and I know I can pull it off and deliver a good experience.

Don’t just take my word for it

“I would like to thank you on behalf of Arbroath Amateur Photography Club for the excellent wedding photography presentation you delivered to us this evening. It was very informative but at the same time interesting and full of humour. The delivery was well paced, you drew the whole audience in, and captured them from your first sentence. We all went away with so much in our minds as to how to improve things for ourselves in our photography journey. And really just can’t thank you enough for a fun but educational evening.” – Maggie Barclay (secretary) Arbroath and District Amateur Photography Club”

Yip, this girl can talk, be educational and funny at the same time. Just don’t expect me to start a new career in comedy!

Looking forward to the future

So does that mean that I’m going to say yes to every speaking event I’m invited to? Not necessarily. But if I know I can deliver a message that is right for the audience then there’s a good chance I’m going to want to do it. I may well have a miniature freak out privately when the time is right to face a huge audience but you’ll never know and it’s all part of the journey of facing my fears.

I never thought I’d be the kind of person that would ever look forward to public speaking. In fact, I’ve just been booked for my next gig! I know it takes a lot of guts to face up to your fears but if I can do it I’m sure you can do it too.

Do you have a fear of public speaking? What in life really scares you? What have you done to try and overcome your fears? Jump into the comments below. I love to hear from you and always reply.