17 October, 2007
A stab at no.85 on Chris Brogan’s 100 Blog Topics I Hope you Write list…
On this blog I regularly post about delivering presentations, but before people get to the point of honing and perfecting their presentation skills, many of them have an even more difficult challenge to face – shyness. Even if you’re 100% au fait with your audience and your topic, shyness, fear or stagefright can paralyse you and turn you into a gibbering wreck.
The trick is to turn that fear into mere nervousness, which in turn generates adrenaline and energy. My father worked backstage at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry (UK) in the 1960s, and recalls the famous comedian and actor Frankie Howerd vomiting copiously before going on stage every night, so nervous was he. Yet when he got out on stage, he was a consummate performer and had the audience in the palm of his hand, because he was able to channel that nervousness. Good presenters should do the same (minus the vomiting!)
As a teenager, I was painfully shy. An only child from a relatively sheltered background, I hated being around others and speaking to someone I didn’t know was absolute torture. Now, as I approach my 40s, I’m still not the most sociable bloke in the world but am comfortable with public speaking, ‘networking’, and generally pressing the flesh.
How did I make the transformation from red-faced, sweating, nervous wreck? Five steps.
1. Leave home
I left home at 18 for a university 200 miles away from my parents. Thrown into a hotbed of drink, sex and general socialising, I had two choices – stay in my room, or just get out there and have a good time. I chose the latter.
2. Move abroad
In 1988 my studies took me to France, and my luck took me to a small mining town called Carvin in the cold, windswept flatlands of the north. A grim, depressed town of 20,000 people with nothing to do, and no other Brits to console me. Another sink or swim moment. So I just got out there, let the locals laugh at my stilted schoolroom French, made some great friends, and had the best year of my life. When I came back, my father said I was a different person (in a good way!)
3. Get a job that involves public speaking
Teaching, tour guiding, training, presenting, I’ve done it all, because it was part of the job. Had I not done it, I would never in a million years have volunteered to speak in public. Now I’ve done it, I actively seek out public speaking opportunities.
4. Sing karaoke
Speaking in public is one thing, but singing? With my voice? No WAY. Yet two years ago, after an epic all-day drinking session, I found myself with about 15 others in a Saigon karaoke room, and instead of pushing the microphone away with a look of horror, they had to prise it out of my hands. I loved it. Karaoke is all about ignoring your limitations, trusting your audience, and simply relaxing. As I always tell my shy staff, all of whom are regular karaoke-goers: if you can get up and sing in front of an audience, you can stand up and deliver a presentation!
5. Become a father
You can’t have a baby and still be self-conscious. That little fella/fella-ette wants to be entertained, preferably with lots of gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, and singing. Last Sunday my wife came downstairs to find me singing loudly along to Rick James’ Superfreak and waving my arms around, to the delight of my hysterical 5 month-old daughter. 5.5 months ago, I’d have gone red with embarrassment; now I’m no longer ashamed, in fact I’m damned proud.
I don’t expect my shy readers to try all of the above, and certainly not in the same order, but trying any one of these things should help reduce that wall of shyness around you and make you a bit more confident around others!