When I was 6 years old, my father bought me a violin. It was a life-changing gift. I wouldn’t say I was a mind-blowing talent, but I was good with music and I enjoyed spending time studying it. At the age of 10, I started to perform small concerts. At first, they were just for my family and our circle of friends, but months later, I was playing the School of Fine Arts scene in my hometown. I can recall how nervous I was before every single concert. But once I started to play, I entered a state of ease and flow, and my violin became my best friend.
Years later, I was working for a multinational corporation, first in Romania and later in Sweden and China. During my time with this company, I was involved in a lot of business projects and my leadership role required me to speak both in front of my team and in management meetings. And I have to confess: It wasn’t always easy.
Speaking in public was very different from playing an instrument onstage. At concerts, my violin was there with me, and that was a tremendous source of comfort; I didn’t feel alone. Speaking in front of my colleagues at work, though, I was all by myself and fighting all kinds of fears and negative voices in my head
What I didn’t realize at that time, and what I know to be true now, is that I was dealing with serious self-esteem and confidence issues. Perfection was my worst enemy, and nothing I was doing felt good enough.
The truth is, I needed people to like me because I didn’t like myself. Speaking in front of people was a challenge for me for many years. It made me feel nervous and sometimes stuck. When I was in front of bigger audiences and with people I wasn’t familiar with, my fingers tingled, my pulse sped up and I could feel my heart beating in my throat.
I tried the old trick of imagining my audience in their underwear. It didn’t work. It felt fake. The people I had in front of me were not naked; they had their clothes on. That was what I had to learn to confront: reality.
Here are the four things that truly helped me to overcome my fear of speaking in public:
1. I found balance.
It sounds simple, but it made a tremendous positive change in the quality of my speech. Holding something small—like a pen—helped center and balance me. It was like holding a bow in my right hand and having my violin with me. It might have just been a pen, but I felt less alone.
2. I made friends with my fear.
The fear of public speaking is relatively common, and can make it difficult for people to speak up or interact during meetings and presentations.
But I had to stop letting fear make me weak. Instead, I learned how to embrace it as simply part of being human. I recognized that in the case of public speaking, the biological purpose of fear was to protect me from the emotional injury of not being liked or not doing a good job. The moment I changed my fear from an enemy to a protective friend, everything changed. My fear was still with me, but now it was there to support me and keep me safe.
3. I detached from other people’s opinion of me.
Being liked, accepted and appreciated by others is a basic human need, and since an early age, many of us have been raised to take other people’s opinions into account. So it is no surprise that we show up in the world trying to fit into someone else’s expectations.
I believe that seeking self-validation through other people turns us into their prisoners. If we worry about what other people think about us, we are focusing on them instead of ourselves and the message we want to deliver. We can’t control what other people feel, but we are in charge of our own feelings, thoughts and emotions.
When I know that what other people think of me has nothing to do with me and doesn’t define me, I set myself free from any judgment. What they see in me is their opinion. Some might perceive me as smart, funny and talented. Others might think I’m an average public speaker—or even a lousy one. To some, I might look pretty. To others, I might not. It’s all about their personal standards of beauty or intelligence, and it has nothing to do with me.
4. I learned new skills and acquired some practical information on public speaking.
Whether it’s planning for a speech or keeping my audience interested in the topic and inspired to know more, practice is essential. The more I dared to stand up and speak, the easier it became. Today, I start all my speeches with the intention of just doing the best I can. There is no need for perfection. I have learned how to make a mistake and get over it gracefully instead of punishing myself. No pressure. Pure freedom!
Sharing my knowledge in public has become a source of genuine joy and fulfillment. And now, I would like to hear from you. How confident are you speaking in public? Are you facing any challenges?
This article was published in November 2017 and has been updated. Photo by garetsworkshop/Shutterstock