Remember the movie Broadcast News (1987)?
Watching it in college, I desperately wanted to be Holly Hunter's character, Jane Craig - the fearless, confident yet vulnerable, one-step-ahead-of-everyone-else news producer. A journalism major who had dreams of being behind the scenes at a big network news show, I saw myself as Jane yet I related so much more to Albert Brooks' Aaron Altman. He was second fiddle to cool, calm and suave Tom Grunick, the handsome idiot newscaster played by William Hurt. Aaron was smarter and more accomplished but when he got his big break - getting called up by the network to fill in on a Sunday night news broadcast - his classic meltdown induced the worst case of flop sweat in history, hilariously showcasing his severe lack of presence.
The reason why Aaron's flop sweat scene was such comedic genius was far more than the talent of Albert Brooks or the brilliant writing of James L. Brooks. That scene resonated with the millions of viewers who ever suffered stage fright or gotten nauseous at the thought of having to speak in front of others. Including 20 year old me. What I failed to admit to myself is the real reason I wanted to be Holly Hunter's Jane was because I was truly terrified at the thought of having to endure what Aaron did during that newscast. I was afraid to talk in front of anyone. That scene helped me to characterize my own anxiety: I'd rather be behind the scenes than step into the spotlight for fear of failing.
In the end, I did not pursue a journalistic career and took a safer route in book publishing. Despite my editorial experience, I ended up in marketing and sales, taking a career journey that found me struggling when it was time for me to speak in front others - which was quite often. Whether sitting around the conference table sharing a project update or giving a presentation to the sales reps, I suffered from butterflies in my stomach, dry mouth and an inexplicable memory loss that prevented me from finding the words I needed to say. I even dreaded talking on the phone.
I was 10 years into my career when I had my quintessential Albert Brooks moment. Six months pregnant with my first child, I had to present to a group of sales reps, and it devolved into a panic-filled, sweaty debacle. Within minutes, I was far more focused on my fear and anxiety (and my self-consciousness about being extremely pregnant and extremely sweaty) than the important information that I was there to present. Ironically, going in, I was feeling incredibly confident about the subject matter and hadn’t even planned to rely upon the slides to tell my story. But as the fear intensified, I simply read the bullet points to get to the end.
In that darkened conference room, soaked in sweat, I confirmed that I was a terrible presenter and public speaker. From that day forward, that image was in my head any time I had to make a presentation. That belief and ongoing anxiety stayed with me for the next 10 years.
As my career advanced, I was required to present in more venues and larger audiences. After getting feedback from a colleague about my obvious discomfort, I committed to fixing my problem. From that point forward, I began to seek out new opportunities to speak and tackle my fear head on. My process for improvement included studying those speakers I admired to glean whatever I could from their performance, identifying key strategies and behaviors to emulate, hoping this would give me more confidence. While I struggled to challenge the demons in my head, my desire was great. I wanted to get up there and do it really, really well, and my plan began to work. Over time, I found myself developing more of an ease with public speaking - although I was nowhere near ready for primetime.
Several years later, I had the opportunity to get some individualized coaching: a full immersion over several days that, next to birthing my children, was one of the most painful and meaningful experiences of my life. When I came out on the other end of the training, I was a caterpillar about to transform into a butterfly.
I now understood the fundamentals. I now had techniques to overcome the fear and challenges that plagued me from so early in my career. And I learned that inside of me there was a talented communicator waiting patiently to emerge. The idea that great speakers were born and not made? Debunked.
I am walking proof that there is life beyond the crippling fear of public speaking. I am grateful that I had the experiences that I did and was ultimately able to tap into the skills that were always there, just waiting to be harvested. Now I relish every opportunity to stand up in front of a group and make a compelling presentation. Sure, sometimes I still get butterflies before I open my mouth, but I know how to handle them and how to gain control. And while I still have not given my 30-minute keynote, it’s still high on my bucket list. I think everyone has a TED talk inside of them - me included. I'm not yet sure what story I will be telling, but it is sure to include how I traveled the road to become someone who would even consider getting up and telling my story.