Over the past couple of decades, I’ve taught literally thousands of college students how to do public speaking. Each term I have a few students in my classes who assume my class will be an easy A because they have no fear of speaking; these are the students who think public speaking is nothing more than standing in front of a group and talking.
While I get a few students who have no fear, the majority of students I’ve taught over the years have experienced moderate to extreme communication apprehension. What may come as a surprise to many is that many of those with the greatest fear end up doing quite well in my classes. These are often the students that know they have to work very hard to do what they fear most – public speaking.
I do understand what it is like to have extreme communication apprehension. I grew up scared speechless. By the time I was a parent, I couldn’t even make a doctor’s appointment over the phone for my children without first writing out a script and practicing it.
Because of my extreme communication apprehension, I faced a lot of limitations. I wasn’t comfortable socially, I felt very self-conscious, and I had a hard time visualizing myself as someone who could ever have any influence.
Fortunately, I learned about Toastmasters when I was still a young adult. Toastmasters International is an organization that helps members gain speaking confidence, leadership skills, and listening skills. For me, Toastmasters helped give me a vision of what I could become. Other members modeled the confidence and skill that I had hoped to develop. Following a manual, I took small steps each week toward gaining confidence and skill. After a few years, I’d gained enough confidence to enroll in classes at a community college. Of course, public speaking was one of the first classes in which I enrolled.
Eventually I went to graduate school and studied communication. Over time I began to develop a vision for myself as a speech communication teacher. As I developed a clear vision of what I wanted my life to look like, I started taking steps to make my vision a reality. Not only have I enjoyed a rich career teaching and giving public presentations, I even got to give a TEDx Talk last year. I would never have imagined that facing my fear and learning to speak up would open so many possibilities.
Because I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do with my life, I’ve never regretted my decision. It has been a great joy to see students gain confidence and skill over the years. Some have used their speaking skills to inspire others.
In one year, I’ll be technically retired. Yet I still have a vision for myself as someone on a mission to empowers others.
The world is full of possibilities when we are willing to open ourselves up, take risks, face our fears, and live our best lives.