I remember the first time I spoke in front of a large audience. The arrangements had been made months in advance, at which time it sounded enticing, even glamorous.
Truthfully, I was far more interested in the idea of me as a speaker, rather than concerning myself with the pesky details of the event itself. Besides, how hard could it be, to talk about something you know in front of a group of strangers?
But walking in to the cavernous auditorium that morning, it suddenly dawned on me: I have not quite thought this through. My dry mouth hung open as I gazed around the theatre, ultimately fixing my eyes on the enormous stage looming up front.
“Are you sure this is the right room?” I nervously checked in with my host. He just smiled and gave me a thumbs-up, while hundreds of people filed in to fill up the seats. The delicate little butterflies in my stomach now turned into violent, wrenching badgers, desperately trying to claw their way out.
I managed to complete the twenty-minute presentation without losing control of any major bodily functions, exiting to lackluster applause. I then proceeded directly to my hotel room, whereupon I curled up into a fetal position for the next two hours.
They say that, for most people, the fear of public speaking is worse than the fear of death, and I can see why. My talk was a disaster, and I wanted nothing more than to just hide out for a few months until the laughter died down.
But, of course, I didn’t do that. I eventually got up, splashed some cold water on my face, and headed down to re-join the conference proceedings.
Someone told me once that fear goes hand in hand with faith and fulfillment. In other words, you can’t accomplish anything worthwhile for God - or for anyone, for that matter - without taking risks and facing some anxiety along the way. The thing is, I really wanted to learn how to become a good public speaker in spite of my fear, because it would help me progress professionally.
Plus, deep down, I knew I had this dormant, untapped potential to do better.
Rather than let the unpleasant experience hijack the rest of my career, I instead decided to attack it head on. I somehow managed to slink out another speaking engagement a few months later, and this time I was determined to be better prepared. I wrote out a script and memorized it, then practiced it in front of an invisible audience over and over and over again.
When the big day of the presentation finally came, I was nervous, but I nailed it. The audience clapped loud and hard, as I recall, and a small crowd even lingered afterwards.
That second talk, it turns out, changed my life. It opened doors to more speaking and consulting gigs, which led to a new job, and then an even better one after that. Who knows the self-imposed limitations I would have otherwise lived with, had I indulged a crippling fear?
It’s counter-intuitive to think that pressing into our own terror is the source of good things to come. But the more we go out on a limb and try new things, the more successes we’ll have, and the more confident we'll become about our capabilities. Our potential is likely far more than what we belive we are capable of.
I like how Eleanor Roosevelt says it: “Try one thing every day that terrifies you.” After a while you just get used to the idea of being nervous, anxious, and even terrified sometimes. It’s nothing to be afraid of.