Have you ever had a horribly embarrassing public speaking experience? Were you mortified when you went blank in your high school French class when asked about Madame Thibeault’s small dog? Did you give a presentation at work and, when you looked out at the audience, become uncomfortably aware that most people were on their phones? Did you feel small, unseen, and unheard?
Whatever the circumstances, that painful memory may now be holding you back from great opportunities. As a public speaking coach, I’ve had many people come to me for help in recovering from bad public speaking experiences. Whether you’re haunted by a bad presentation from last week, two years ago, or even decades in the past, there is hope.
Just because something was true in the past doesn’t mean it will be true in the future. At one point in your life, you couldn’t read. Now you can. You don’t currently identify with that version of yourself who was unable to read, do you?
Or how about learning to ride a bike? If you’re like me, you wiped out a bunch and may even have scars on your knees and elbows as mementos from that time. But you pushed through, and now you are a competent bike rider. You can choose to relate to your public speaking wipeouts in the same way.
Stand-up comedians view totally bombing as a rite of passage. They accept that it will happen, and many feel that bombing actually makes them better. If you adopt that same mindset about public speaking, you already have that valuable experience under your belt!
Unpacking Your Narrative
During and after intensely negative experiences, we often create narratives that extrapolate from what happened. Check out this example:
“I was at my very first job. My boss asked me to give a presentation to the team. I had done some presenting in college, but I never really felt comfortable or knew how to prepare.
“In a college class, if I screwed up, it only affected my grade, and I knew I probably wouldn’t see any of my classmates again after the end of the semester. If I messed up at the team meeting, however, my boss would see and so would my colleagues. I would definitely have to face them again.
“I worked really hard on my slides and put a lot of information on them so I would always know exactly what I was going to say. The conference room was really packed, and I had to walk up to the front. I could feel everyone looking at me. I was so nervous. I could feel my face turning red and my heart pounding. I looked out at the group and saw that people already looked distracted or bored, like they didn’t want to hear what I had to say. A few of them were on their phones.
“And then there were tech issues. My stupid slide deck wouldn’t open. There was something wrong with the file. My boss told me to just give the group the gist of what was in the presentation. I was so overwhelmed. I faced the room and … went blank. I suddenly couldn’t remember any of what I had prepared. I uttered a few awkward sentences, said ‘I’m sorry,’ and then sat back down. I knew right then that I never wanted to be the center of attention like that ever again. I clearly wasn’t good at it.”
Let’s dig deeper. This story does contain facts like “I never really felt comfortable or knew how to prepare,” “I worked really hard on my slides,” and “there were tech issues.” However, not everything in this story is a fact.
Let’s look more closely at this sentence: “I looked out at the group and saw that people already looked distracted or bored, like they didn’t want to hear what I had to say.” We usually have no way of knowing what’s really going on for our audience members emotionally and mentally. Their expressions probably have absolutely nothing to do with us! This statement, then, is not so much a fact as it is a narrative the person created in their own head.
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In my mind, the most important sentence to take note of is: “I had done some presenting in college, but I never really felt comfortable or knew how to prepare.” This is what set the demoralizing experience in motion. People are often expected to know how to present and handle nervous energy even though they’ve received very little guidance or training on public speaking. Having compassion for yourself in this situation will help you start letting go of these painful memories.
Let’s also address the last two statements of the story: “I knew right then that I never wanted to be the center of attention like that again. I clearly wasn’t good at it.” This is where we can see the person has totally shut down their willingness to try. The person is completely intolerant of not being good at something — even if they never received adequate guidance or training! Ouch!
Statements like “I clearly wasn’t good at it” serve as protective mechanisms. It feels terrible when our peers see us lost and vulnerable. In response, our brains try to do everything they can to keep us from feeling that way ever again. However, these protective mechanisms often become prisons. We end up stuck, watching the world go by.
If you’re feeling this way, it’s time to make a jail break. Let’s look again at this story and create a new narrative, one where the person in question learns to be compassionate toward their own situation:
1. I had done some presenting in college, but never really felt comfortable or knew how to prepare: How was I supposed to know how to prepare if no one had ever taught me how? Of course this was challenging.
2. I worked really hard on my slides and put a lot of information on them so I would always know exactly what I was going to say: I did put a lot of effort into the slides, and I need to give myself credit for that. Going forward, I also want to put time into rehearsing so I can find ways to manage my nervous energy. Practicing will also help me understand my ideas on a deeper level. Then, if there are tech issues, I’ll still be able to share my thoughts.
3. I looked out at the group and saw that people already looked distracted or bored, like they didn’t want to hear what I had to say. A few of them were on their phones: There’s no way I could know what people were thinking or feeling. They have full busy lives of their own with plenty of ups and downs. Come to think of it, I usually jump on my phone, too, when I am waiting for something to begin. It doesn’t have anything to do with the speaker. I just want to see what’s going on in my world.
4. I was so nervous. I was so overwhelmed: Of course I was nervous and overwhelmed — I didn’t know what I was doing!
5. I faced the room and … went blank: I had no idea how to manage my nervous energy. I think that’s why I went blank. That makes sense!
6. I knew right then that I never wanted to be the center of attention like that ever again: I totally understand my vow to hide. A very normal reaction! But, if I spent time learning how to prepare and manage my nerves, I could likely become more comfortable with public speaking over time.
7. I clearly wasn’t good at it: Of course I wasn’t good at presenting! I didn’t have any guidance or experience. But with training, instruction, and encouragement, I could become better. I did learn to speak, eat, say “please” and “thank you,” ride a bike/play sports/play an instrument. It took time, but I did it. I can learn to do this, too.
After a bad public speaking experience, unpacking what happened and the accompanying arbitrary narrative of “what it means for the future” is a very helpful way to recover. It’s freeing to apply compassion and logic to the details. Adopting a new perspective on the matter can help you to heal, let go of the bad experience, and move forward.
Amanda Hennessey is the founder of Boston Public Speaking, San Diego Public Speaking, and Boston Acting Classes and the author of Your Guide to Public Speaking: Build Your Confidence, Find Your Voice, and Inspire Your Audience.