From Loathing to Dealing: A Crash Course in Public Speaking

5 helpful tips and tricks to bolt past your insecurities (formal list down below!)

Image credit: Flickr CC

By Esther Konadu

Listen, this is only for a few hours, it will be over soon and you can be back in your room with pajamas on, I told myself. That became my mantra for the night, and I ran it over and over in my mind as my father parked the car in the school’s parking lot. Normally, I would never, in any way, shape, or form, agree to do any type of public speaking. I go above and beyond loathing public speaking, I dread it.

The big factors that turn me away are stalling, forgetting my points, and being made fun of for some unintentional noise or an odd phrase that had not registered in my mind. It becomes more about what my audience thinks of my mannerisms, instead of their opinions on my topic. And how could I forget to include my personal favorite factor, the anxious symptoms? Doing powerpoints and giving oral presentations in class has always struck me with a paralyzing type of fear.

During my freshman year of high school, I gave a powerpoint in health class on my assigned topic: binge eating disorders. As I stood in front of the class, I was plagued with an extreme case of fidgeting and began to fiddle with my hands, to the point where it was almost uncontrollable. Instead of remembering what I had planned to say, the thoughts I had were, “They probably noticed the one piece of lint on my jacket that you missed” and “Great job, you just made yourself look idiotic in front of everyone you basically know. These did a number on my already struggling self-esteem.

On the night of this terrifying presentation, I walked into school and towards the stairs carefully to the second floor where the graphic communications shop is located. I took a quick glance at a poster covered wall. It was filled with reminders of paying off class dues, club notices, the winter sports wellness meeting date, and a 365Z foundation quote. As my eyes took in the colors from the posters, I thought to myself, “It’s your senior year, and sometimes you feel like you haven’t made a difference in someone’s life, Rule #1: now’s your chance.

I clenched both of my hands into fists to keep myself from tripping up the stairs and from picking at the invisible pearls of grey lint that line the bottom hem of my favorite sweater. My eyes stayed downcast to view the pristine tile floor, but looked up every so often to make sure I didn’t run into any carts or tables.

I finally saw my related theory teacher, Mr. Mazzone, and his overly energetic persona contrasting with his authoritative baby blue suit jacket. He was waiting to greet me and reiterate the goal for that night: get some eighth graders interested in exploring graphic communications. Getting barely-crowned teens to do anything at all is a challenge in itself, but to convince them of something that defines their four years of high school is a terrifying task. Earlier, I spent about four hours of my day obsessing over which of my art and designs were worthy enough to be included out on the table. I mulled over a local pizza place’s logo and a self-made business card and eliminated them because I thought they were too simplistic. I needed something to catch the eye but to also interest the viewer.

Luckily, my close friend Ivory arrived in a bronze dress and black Doc Martens. I complimented her outfit which brought a sheepish smile to her face.

“Thanks, I can’t wait for this to be over so I can go eat. I’m starving.” she said. She was ready, but equally as nervous to be present.

She had spent her time earlier that day picking out her work from Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator that she tolerated to put out on display, asking me for my opinion on all of her artwork. “I really like this one but something about it doesn’t make me want to choose it. What do you think, is this too much?”

I rolled over to her seat to get a better look at the work she was showing me. “No, it’s just the right amount of much. Not too distracting, but there’s enough color, shading, and it’s amazing to look at.” I replied.

As I thought of this earlier moment, I looked down to see what I would be showcasing for the printing aspect of the trade: brochures, business cards, and invitations. Our other friend, Robert, also arrived, turning us into the perfect trifecta.

“How are my two favorite people doing right now?” Robert asked with a bright smile on his face.

“Did I mention, that I’m hungry? That’s how I’m doing right now, but I’m otherwise ready for Friday and the weekend.” Ivory stated.

I laughed. “I’m doing okay Bumble Bee.” Robert’s nickname I created would stick as long as he had the natural highlighted swirl at the center of his head, no matter how many times a day he protested for me to change it.  

“But Ivory is so right. Food sounds like a great idea.” I continued.

Robert’s area to showcase was the screen printing area. This is what the majority of prospective students get most attracted to, the thought of designing something on the computer to put on a piece of clothing. Whether using clothing ink or embroidery, it still is the most intriguing to young students.

The three of us spread out our samples across our banner-draped table in the cafeteria and spent some time organizing it all, rivaling a professional charcuterie board. We laid down a few notepad samples, ranging from our very own trade logo to a more casual Despicable Me themed notepad. Our press instructor, Mr. Champeau loved that movie, and his favorite character, Stuart, was on each page of the notepad.

As we straightened out the last details, Ivory, Robert, and I gave each other a meaning-filled reassuring look; this is going down in either one of two ways, either we do a great job, or we make this trade look like a joke. “Rule #2: hope for the positive outlook.” I thought to myself.

We sat and talked in hushed tones behind Mr. Mazzone to come to a group decision about the order of topics we should address. We chose to say whatever came to mind and go with the flow. There was no way we were memorizing speaking points with such little time left to prepare for the crowds. The three of us sat down to calm our last few jittery nerves and took a deep breath.

The doors of the auditorium opened, releasing all the families and their kids, allowing them to start walking down the big ballroom staircase to the cafeteria. The waves of people rolled in, and the first family came closer to our table. I could feel the telltale sign of my nerves starting to happen; so I let my thumb rub against my ring finger to help remind me of Rule #3: You can take control of your feelings.

This was our time to shine and show our teacher that we were the right people he chose for the night. The three of us looked at each other for one last piece of reassurance and dived right in. We improved on our “dive right in” idea throughout the night. Our objective was to smoothly and seamlessly answer questions and present, but if a kid walked up to one of us specifically, we made sure to give them as much information as we could to kickstart the gears in their brains.

Ivory would start off by explaining the design part of the shop, showcasing the pieces that utilized Photoshop, and the business logos expertly crafted with Illustrator. Next, it would come to me picking up where Ivory trailed off. At first, I could barely be heard over the other trade’s tables presenting or the machines on display, and it was noticeable on some parents’ faces that they were missing out on what I had to say. As I looked around to feel a little less defeated, remembered a key rule that I constantly neglect. Rule #4: Volume. If you can’t hear yourself, your audience can’t hear you. Keeping this in mind, I made this my goal for the next group that came over.

When Ivory finished her portion, I would audibly talk about the process that goes in to printing brochures and business cards, and how sometimes you had to turn off the offset press and open up doors and safety guards to figure out why it jammed or why a smear of ink was creating a misprint.

Lastly, Robert would connect the problem-solving strategies to screen printing; a crooked image might appear on the test paper and it would be time to check if it was properly lined up beforehand. By doing this, it progressively got easier to talk to everyone, and I started to get more comfortable with presenting. Before we knew it, families were asking to take tours throughout the shop to discover more and build off what we had described. The kids would come back with praise and the sparkling twinkle in their eyes; a sure sight that they would put it on their application.

Once the last family strolled out, the three of us looked down to our once fabulous charcuterie board and witnessed the aftermath. The leftover notepads and brochures were haphazardly strewn around the table, and our once perfectly straight banner-draped table was left severely crooked. As Ivory, Robert, Mr. Mazzone, and I slowly walked up the stairs back into the shop, we finally set our charcuterie board leftovers on a table and started unpacking the boxes. The whole night seemed to be something straight out of a dream.

I turned around, walked down the stairs with my hands unclenched. As I strolled back to the car, I took a minute to reflect on the events of the night, and at that moment, I smiled. The tangled yarn ball of nerves had unwound and I was left feeling like I could do something like this again. As I looked out the car window to see the rapidly shifting light-speckled city skyline I thought of one last important thing I gained from this magical night. Rule #5: You can do this again, no matter the circumstances. And with that thought, I stepped out of the car, gently padded up the stairs in my fuzzy cabin socks, climbed into bed, and drifted off into a deep dreamless sleep.

Alright, if you really had no time in your day to read my story, (shame on you, you’re missing out on the full experience!), here’s the list (that you neglected to see in my story):

Crash Course Rules:

Rule #1. Now’s your chance- If an opportunity comes in your way to conquer your fear, take the leap. You never know where it’ll take you and you’ll never know the outcome.

Rule #2. Hope for the positive outlook- Naturally, if you’ve stuck with Rule #1, then Rule #2 is in a similar fashion. Going into the opportunity with a stormy attitude will only give you stormy results. Go in with a sunny disposition and you’ll see sunny results!

Rule #3. You can take control of your feelings- You control what you feel and what you react to. If you take charge of yourself, you can change your own mood in an instant (or a few, the human body isn’t a machine you know).

Rule #4. Volume. If you can’t hear yourself, your audience can’t hear you- Make sure that you are loud and heard! Whenever you’re speaking, make sure that the audience can hear you and are actively following along. Not being able to hear is how people start to lose interest and leave!

Rule #5. You can do this again, no matter the circumstances- The only one stopping you is you. Take what you did right or wrong from one experience and carry it to the next one. Everything in life has a lesson whether you know it immediately or not. Take it all in, and save it for a rainy day when you really need the guidance.

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