How a shy country boy overcame his fear of public speaking

Boy silhouette

Photo credit: m o d e

Last week I received a moving and inspiring email from a reader about how he overcame his fear of public speaking. Dave has given me permission to share his story and I hope you find it inspiring too. It reinforces the point that you can learn to be a confident public speaker – you don’t have to be born with the gift of the gab.

“I grew up as the world’s shyest child… literally. At my 8th grade graduation banquet from my little rural school, I was required to give a speech to my 25 or so classmates. I had never heard a speech before! I had NO idea what I was doing. But I wrote out about 13 lines of stuff (history will never know what, because not even I remember) on an index card and memorized it. From the time of the “invitation” to speak up until that moment of horror, I was, in fact, horrified to the point of being almost physically ill.

I got to about the second line of the “speech” and absolutely, totally forgot the remainder. I sat down… utterly humiliated. (In retrospect, I now realize the teachers, etc. should have given me more guidance, but that’s water under the bridge.) I pledged to myself that I would NEVER allow myself to be that humiliated again (and my second speech, probably 10-minutes in length, at the graduation ceremony a few night’s later was, although not an Academy Awards moment, still not a source of humiliation). [In proof-reading this, it just occurred to me that my own speech was the first speech I ever heard! LOL]

When I reached high school, I noticed Speech classes were offered. I would have dropped out of school rather than have had to take one of those classes.

I never had a date, because I was too terrified to ask, until I was 25-years old. Thank goodness, I finally asked, and married the world’s most incredible woman.

To make a long story VERY short, years later I became a minister and, of course, had to stand before sizeable congregations to preach. (Don’t giggle just yet!). Fortunately, by then I had received intensive training in my subject matter and in preaching, but I was still the same shy guy. However, my delivery and fear-level improved miraculously, and I think I know why.

A few years ago, I was standing with the groom’s party about to make our entrance into the sanctuary for the wedding. I happened to be standing near the soloist, and he asked me if I was nervous (which is not unusual, because the entire party is ALWAYS nervous… for the record, groomsmen mercilessly tease the groom about it). The spontaneous reply that came from my mouth astounded even me… I will never forget what I said, and I will always appreciate the truth of it: “Not really. First, I am very well prepared. Secondly, I am ABSOLUTELY and UNAPOLOGETICALLY convinced of what I am going to say. Thirdly, I HAVE done this a few times.”

If I could add to those 3 points today, the 4th would be, “It’s not about me.”

Miracles do happen to shy, little country boys. Today, although basically still shy,  I can stand with ease before any size crowd or ANY person and boldly, effectively, articulately, and convincingly pronounce what I have to say.”

Here’s the message that I take from Dave’s story:

When you change what you tell yourself about public speaking,

your feelings about public speaking will change

After Dave’s first traumatic experiences he was telling himself “I never want to go through that humiliation again.” That had him avoid any form of public speaking or anything which might risk public humiliation. Years later, when he became a minister, his fear virtually disappeared because he was telling himself “What I have to say is more important than my feelings.” The potential for humiliation was no longer central in his mind because of his belief in his message.

If you can relate to how Dave felt as a young boy and as a young man, consider what you are telling yourself about public speaking.

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  1. I loved this story and could relate. I’m also a minister, but had a different upbringing than Dave – was blessed with a very spontaneous mother who also semi-forced us (her children) into the spotlight! This has certainly helped me to build confidence from a young age, and has brought me to a place where I don’t struggle with public speaking anxiety as much. Thanks for the article!

  2. nice story

  3. I had much the same experience. I grew up a loner on a remote dirt farm in Iowa. I attended grade school in the 1950s in a one-room building with one teacher and kindergarten through eighth grade. Each graduating eight-graders’ performance was determined by completing a state-wide exam. I accidentally received a high score, giving me the honor of being valedictorian of the entire county. I was then required to give a speech before a large crowd in a town of thirty thousand. I knew nothing about writing or giving a speech and had no idea of whom to ask. But I did manage to write something and read it with my head floating off somewhere before a dark sea of silence. Details of that terrible night have completely escaped my memory to this day.

    I went on to get a Ph.D. and my jobs over the years have required numerous oral presentations, which were at best mediocre. I could never bring myself to practice a speech, because I was unable to articulate a speech to any but the crowd it was intended for. Never once did I try to learn how to prepare and give a great or even good presentation. Now I am 70 and retired, and I would like to give at least a good presentation for fun. In two weeks I will be giving an invited 25 minute presentation at a workshop of experts in my field from around the world.

    This past year I’ve been learning that my anxiety feelings about giving oral presentations are normal. With my slides completed following the guidelines on this website, this time I will practice numerous times in the coming days. I expect at least a good upcoming presentation.

    • You have courage Roger, go well with your presentation in two weeks.