Here's my story.
I remember watching Broadcast News when I was in college back in 1987. I wanted to be Holly Hunter's character, Jane Craig - the fearless, confident yet vulnerable, one-step-ahead-of-everyone-else news producer. I was a journalism major who had dreams of being behind the scenes at a big network news show. I dreamt about being 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 and got called up by the network to fill in on a Sunday night news broadcast, his classic meltdown inducing the worst case of flop sweat in history, hilariously showcased his severe lack of presence. Those of us who ever suffered stage fright or got nauseous at the thought of having to speak in front of others (pretty much the entire viewing audience) collectively groaned.
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 people who watched the movie because each and every one of them imagined themselves in the same situation. Including 20 year old me. What I quickly realized was that the reason I wanted to be Holly Hunter's Jane was because I was secretly terrified of the thought of having to endure what Aaron did during that newscast. I was afraid to talk in front of anyone. That scene was the first time I was able 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 never pursued my journalistic career but, instead, took a safer route getting a job in New York book publishing. Despite my editorial experience, I ended up in marketing and began a career journey that found me continually struggling when it was time for me to speak in front others - which was quite often. Regardless of whether I was sitting around the conference table having to share an update on projects that I was working on, or if I had to give 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 that I needed to say when it was my turn to talk. I even dreaded talking on the phone.
I was about 10 years into my career when I had my quintessential Albert Brooks moment. I was 6 months pregnant with my first child and had to present to a group of sales reps at Parents magazine. I was in charge of licensing and strategic partnerships and I had to do a 10 minute presentation on a new line of children's toys we had developed with Target under the Parents brand. I was in the conference room, standing behind the podium, clicking through the powerpoint presentation and the sweating began. The more I felt the sweat, the more nervous I became. I could not remember all the salient points I had practiced and was far too focused on my fear and anxiety (and my self-consciousness about being extremely pregnant and extremely sweaty) to be actively participating in my presentation. I read the bullet points on my slides and prayed that no one asked me any questions. The mantra in my head was "just get through this, just get through this." I wanted to get done and return to my seat. Epic fail. This became my defining moment. From that day forward, this scene became the image in my head any time I had to make a presentation. What I now believed to be true about myself was that I could not present. I had no presence. I had no capabilities. And that carried through for the next 10 years of my career.
Over the years that followed that incident, I had more and more need to present to others. As I grew in my career and took on more senior roles, it was expected that I would be able to present to clients, senior leaders, board members, or external business partners. We had company conferences where I would have to present in ballrooms filled with hundreds of people. I became more in awe of those amazing speakers who could get up (sometimes without notes!) and capture the audience's attention for a 30-minute keynote. I studied them, trying to understand what their secret was because, deep down, I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to be able to communicate a message with poise and confidence. I wanted to be engaging and interesting and calm and confident. Despite the fact that the message in my head was that I was not a good presenter, I had a secret desire to get up there and do it - really, really well.
So began my mission to reverse my thinking and change my experience as a speaker. Because I regularly told my colleagues how uncomfortable I was speaking in public and limited my opportunities to push myself out of my comfort zone, I recognized that I had to change my course and rethink my messaging. I began to seek out new challenges and studied those who did it well to see if I could pick up some key strategies to emulate, hoping it would give me more confidence in my own abilities. And, over time, I found myself developing more of an ease with public speaking - although I was nowhere near ready for primetime.
Several years later, after I became a consultant and actually spent a good deal of my time leading meetings and making much more formal presentations to clients, I had the opportunity to get some individualized presentation skills training. It was a one-on-one full immersion over several days and, next to birthing my children, was one of the most painful - and one of the most meaningful - experiences of my life. When I came out the other end of the training, I was transformed. I didn't know it at the time but it became evident very quickly because I learned the fundamentals. Everything that I went in believing to be true about what was required to be a strong speaker was thrown out the window and I had a whole new understanding of myself and how 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.
I am walking proof that there is life beyond the crippling fear of public speaking. I have lived on both sides of this fence and I am grateful that I had the experiences that I did and was ultimately able to tap into the skills that were always there and just waiting to be harvested. I relish every opportunity to stand up in front of a group and make a compelling presentation. I capitalize on every single chance I get to present and no longer shy away from it. And, while I still have not given my 30-minute keynote with no notes, I am nowhere near done and it is still 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 even would consider getting up and telling my story. My story is still being written. How about you?
Please share your stories with us! What was your Albert Brooks moment? We'd love to hear from you. Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me all about it!