Public speaking is an element of life that has troubled and perplexed me since my early twenties. It seems to permeate so many aspects of life: wedding speeches, delivering eulogies, at work and being a student. Some take to speaking in front of groups with ease and grace; speaking of nerves as a tiny component that accompanies them right before they are required to speak, and which they flawlessly override. Others describe public speaking as something they did not naturally warm to, which they overcame with practice or by taking an acting class or similar. Then there are others who would rather die than speak in front of a group, and I am part of this group.
My fear of public speaking is a phobia, and a serious one. Each time it comes up in conversation, I have been the beneficiary of many reassuring tales of overcoming a dislike of speaking to groups. Although insightful, and interesting to hear someone else’s experiences and thoughts, the helpful advice feels woefully disconnected to my experience of public speaking.
I am interested in the role that public speaking plays in our society, and the general expectation, that you should simply ‘get over it’. Now in my late thirties, I can see that many workplaces are structured around the ability to, not only speak to groups, but to do it well. Being a nervous, emotional wreck in front of a group is not pleasant for anyone. I can see that despite my intelligence, experience, hard work ethic, strong people skills and problem solving abilities, opportunities for career development dissipate if I am not prepared to speak to groups. Society is geared toward accepting this, and I am questioning whether it is reasonable, based simply upon the scientific differences between introverted and extroverted people.
It never made sense to me that when a loved one passes away, those closest to them often feel pressured to speak at the funeral. I have no objection to people speaking, who choose to do so, but I disagree with people feeling they must, when it is the last thing they want to do and they are struggling in the grips of grief and despair.
My experiences around public speaking centre around higher education. To address my difficulties speaking to groups I completed a Toastmasters course, and consistently participated in Toastmasters meetings for six months. My acute response to public speaking, it is irrational and severe. If I know I have a presentation coming up, I experience anxiety for months in the lead up to it. A constant awareness that I will have to speak, and the heavy anxiety in your body that most people probably experience on the morning of a speech, envelops me. This exhausting anxiety is persistent and amplifies as the time draws nearer. I have been unable to alleviate this response, despite numerous approaches and wide reading on the topic. On the day of a speech I would rather be dead, and I enter a state of numbness as my feet to take me closer to the place where I will have to attempt to do what I find overwhelmingly distressing. Trying to hold my nerves together, to keep some semblance of calm rationality is challenging, and the later into the day my speech is, the more difficult I find it to hold everything together. Speaking to a group is like an out of body experience for me, and it is intensely uncomfortable. One particularly difficult experience involved my throat physically closing up while I was trying to speak, making it impossible to speak without coughing or clearing my throat to allow a couple more words squeak out. I completed the speech knowing it was as painful for the audience as it was for me. I was the second last speaker of the day, and held myself together until the end. Upon reaching the outside of the building, I burst into tears and sobbed as I walked home, and that night.
This level of distress is beyond what I imagine most people experience, and I think it is unreasonable to think it is okay for someone to experience this, once let alone regularly. I have put in a concerted effort to overcome this severe fear of public speaking, and it has not altered the level of distress I have experienced. I want society to consider whether for some people, it is unreasonable to expect them to speak to groups and that despite this, they hold great value and deserve the opportunity to excel and develop their career with the support of workplaces to accommodate this.