College formally introduced me to one of my biggest fears—public speaking.
Before college, I had presentations here and there but still managed to get through them with little worry. When I got to the University of Michigan, the stakes seemed much higher and my voice seemed much smaller. There’s just something about standing up in front of a lecture hall of 50 people or more and presenting yourself as a knowledgeable person that had me shaking in my boots.
Sitting in my nonprofit management class one day, my professor spoke aloud the dreaded words I had come to detest. “For your final project you will be researching a nonprofit, writing a paper on it and presenting it in front of the class in formal attire.”
No, it wasn’t the formal attire that had me nervous, but the impending presentation that would loom over my head like an albatross for the rest of the semester. I slowly looked around me.
How many students are in here? These thoughts became my mantra leading up to the day of the presentation.
Doomsday arrived with its suit and tie on. As the other students presented, I breathed in and out, trying to push the negative thoughts from my head. It’s simple, right? You start talking at around age one, start walking soon after and learn to breathe right out of the womb…it shouldn’t be that difficult to do this in front of a crowd. These encouragements gave me the energy to push myself out of my seat and onto the stage.
From the podium, I looked into the wondrous eyes of 50 students. The intellectual minds of my fellow peers transformed into prestigious judges with robes and gavels. I feared for my safety because to me, they held the ultimate power to decide if I would do well enough to see another day. Would they shackle me and throw me in a cell for being a blubbering idiot during my presentation? I said a silent prayer that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself, but one wrong twist of my tongue could make me a goner.
I started speaking enthusiastically about my nonprofit on suicide awareness. It was a powerful topic, and I wanted to convey everything I had learned about the impact that suicide has on families. This enthusiasm, however, was stomped out by the big, bad anxiety monster. I struggled with focusing on my materials and began to wonder what my listeners were thinking.
She’s so weird, they’d think. Does she even know what’s she’s talking about?
Oh gosh, did that guy just yawn? My hands began to shake, my voice trembled and I lost my train of thought.
So what do you do when you’re in front of a class of 50 students, all eyes are on you and your nerves have a tight choke-hold on your bodily functions?
Well, I didn’t know. I fumbled through my notecards and quickly flipped through my slides, all while my voice cracked with every other word.
This presentation was like running for the first time after a long winter of holiday feasting. I was tired, out of shape and the reality of it all ached throughout my core. Is it possible to go throughout college without having to give another presentation? The truth to this thought became the large red pill that I had to swallow in order to do something about my problem.
Somehow I managed to get a good grade in the class (notice I did not say presentation), and I left with a mission in mind: in order to push past this fear of judgement in my presentations, I needed to practice speaking in front of large groups more. The more of this exposure I had, the less public speaking would have me shaking with the mention of its name. I came up with a plan to force myself out of my shell and connect with other students with social anxiety to learn different ways to cope. I got involved with a college support group that became a sounding board to all of the problems we had. Although this group didn’t completely erase my silly thoughts and stumbled speaking when presenting, it did illuminate where my problems lie and who I could be without them.