I Bombed The Hell Out Of My First Public Speaking Attempt

Man speaking on a stage to a crowd in a stadium

Photo: Miguel Henriques

“You look like an idiot.”

That was the first time I’d tried public speaking as an adult (well, I was barely an adult at eighteen), and a member of the audience told me that straight to my face. Harsh? Maybe. But maybe you’d think the same after I give you some context.

Many people don’t know this, but I attended an audio engineering course for one term, because my stupid self thought that it was the path to becoming a DJ. This was when formal education was the only thing that opened doors, and as someone who didn’t enjoy school one bit, you can tell how confusing everything was when it come to choosing your life’s path (spoiler alert: this would be one of the reasons why I became a hairdresser).

I quickly learned that I didn’t care much about the theory of sound, and neither did I want to help people set up their sound systems (spoiler #2: I would also spend some time as a roadie), so I dropped out of that course real quick.

But before that could happen, I had to survive my first class presentation about myself. Sounds pretty tame, right? Back then, though, we might as well have been presenting about quantum physics. I had no idea how to tackle the task.

All I had to do was go up there and talk about myself for five minutes. Yet my teen mind figured that presentations didn’t work unless they were memorable. So I came up with a master plan, and when it was my turn to go up there and speak, I chose to dance while spoke. Yup. I sashayed as if I was an ice skater as I prattled on about my dreams and ambitions.

All the lecturer could do was stare, and it fell upon one particularly vocal classmate to get to the bottom of the situation. “What the hell are you doing?” he said.

“Giving a cool presentation,” I said.

“You look like an idiot.”

That stopped me dancing real quick, and I wish I could say this was a sappy coming-of-age story, but unfortunately, it’s an experience I’ll take all the way to my grave. I’m just grateful that mobile phones still had black-on-green displays in this era, because that would’ve been an unfortunate thing to have on social media.

So I returned to my seat with everyone’s laughter as the soundtrack. I thought that was going to be it. I would never speak in public again. It just wasn’t my thing. But life has its way of being weird, sometimes.

Bunch of girls laughing in flower field.

I wish I could say that the audience was laughing with me, but alas. Photo: Priscilla Du Preez

The speaking life found me

Turns out, I actually had a knack for speaking. I might not have the enunciation qualities of Russell Brand, nor do I have the charisma of Barack Obama, but I’ve actually learned to be comfortable in the spotlight. Tell that to eighteen-year-old me and he’d ask you for whatever it is you’re smoking (I’m serious. Eighteen-year-old me loved having a good time).

I would end up being an educator during my hairdressing days, I’d lead classes at a tech company that I used to work in, emcee for events, speak at my friends’ weddings, and even be asked to deliver my mum’s eulogy. I would also sign up for a stand-up pun competition.

Not bad for someone who’d bombed the heck out of his first try, ain’t it?

I like being known as a writer, but public speaking has also been a big part of my life. And now, as I embark on a couple new teaching engagements, I thought I’d just revisit the life lessons I’d learned from speaking.

1. You are not your past

I know, I shouldn’t be one to speak, especially seeing how my previous lives have involved ricochetting from one identity to another. I mean, of course I’m going to be biased when it comes to not tethering yourself to your past, am I right? But that’s also the moral here.

Just because you hated computers when you were a teen doesn’t mean you can’t be a programmer. Just because you made a mistake doesn’t mean the rest of your life is tainted by the error of your ways. And most importantly, your future decisions don’t need to be mired by what you think you can or can’t do.

2. You just gotta play the game

I’m a worrier and an over-thinker. That means everyday things like doing the groceries stress me out more than the average person, because I tend to live life a little in the future.

What’s the queue going to be like? Would I be able to find any parking spots? Should I just wait till rush hour’s over?

And when it comes to things like speaking or competitions, this trait goes into overdrive, and I often lose days of sleep leading up to a big event. For instance, I was invited by the University of Nottingham to give a talk on the various writing paths you can take after graduation, and despite preparing all I could, I still found myself worrying that I wouldn’t do the event justice.

That’s when I learned to accept that nerves will always be part of the game. In fact, I took that as a good sign, because if I didn’t care enough to worry about screwing up, then I shouldn’t be the one giving the talk anyways. Now every time I get the jitters before a big event, I just acknowledge it as a part of the process. An expected discomfort, such as the heat of a sauna or the strain of a workout.

Man in hoodie

Yeah, it can suck sometimes, but once you accept it as part of the game, you’ll get through it easier. Photo: Ehristian Erfurt

3. If it sucks so much, do something about it

This ties in with my previous point of worrying. I’ve found that covering all my bases helps me quell my anxiety. The more I address my worries, the less I have to worry about.

Of course, this involves me knowing the difference between the things I can control and the things I can’t. If I’m losing sleep over anything, I take the time to work on whatever it is that I’m worried about.

Deadline looming? Then I should just stop browsing Facebook and get to writing. Debts piling up? Then I better look at my inflow of cash versus my outflow, and see what steps I can take to address them.

4. You can’t fake competence

Faking it till you make it helps you get off your ass and do something, but it’s not going to cover up your lack of experience. Public speaking is one such place where you can’t talk your way out of bad preparation. Not knowing your slides, fumbling with your equipment, and going on off-tangent rambles are sure signs that you didn’t prepare enough for your talk, and this applies to most things in life as well.

Sometimes you just gotta put in the work. And like eating healthy and exercising, no one else can do it for you.

5. The obstacle is the way

There’s no other way to confront your fears other than to face them head on. I wish that wasn’t the case, because I still have so many things to overcome—my fear of insects, confrontation, and hard work, among many others—but I’ve found that it is possible to conquer your fears by facing them head on, as my public speaking journey would attest.

The only reason why I got decent at it was because of the eight-hour classes that I had led for years during my educator days (when I was a hairdresser).

You can’t sweep things under the rug and hope they disappear on their own. You actually have to pick up all that rubbish and put them where they belong—in the trash. And the only way to do that is to look under that damn rug.

Failing is winning

Sometimes I feel like we should all collect failures instead wins, because not only do they teach important lessons along the way, but they also show us that we can live through our biggest blunders and still come out of them alive and stronger than before.

So yeah, you could fall flat on your face sometimes, but if public speaking has taught me anything at all, it’s that life can take you to some interesting places, as long as you don’t let your past dictate who you think you should be.

66 thoughts on “I Bombed The Hell Out Of My First Public Speaking Attempt

  1. My stupid middle school self thought it would be a brilliant idea to sing a song as part of a presentation to my class. It was not.
    I’ve also come to enjoy presentations (and even singing songs in public, though there is a time and place for everything) and I think I am not half bad at it, but it took quite a bit trial and error to get there.
    I love your post and your story. #1, 3, and 4 are spot-on!

    • Wow, there are more people who enjoy public speaking here than I’d have thought otherwise. Well thankfully we share a similarly painful experience, lol, so I won’t need to go through all this cringe on my own. Love your story!

      • You are definitely not alone on the cringe-worthy school presentation experience.

        Another memorable school presentation bomb: I was giving a presentation about Les Miserables (I forget why). I was a super naive teenager. Like naive enough not to what was considered a bad word. So in the middle of my presentation, I say “Fantine is a whore”, quoting what other characters in the movie say about her, and the whole class and teacher just look at me with that “Did she really just say that look”. Ugh.

      • Lolol, am loving your candour. Most times, the painful stories are the best, so you really are sharing some some of the great ones with us by doing this. I appreciate you!

  2. I loved this, Stuart. It took me back to a few … interesting … experiences of my own as a public speaker. It’s something I’m quite comfortable with now, and actually enjoy, but I sure had some doozies. The worst ever was giving an ill-prepared presentation to a room-full of German sales reps. *Just no, Steve, what the hell are you thinking??* Worst half hour of my life. I always think really carefully about who my audience are and what they hope to get out of my talk. Never waste people’s time, because they’ll resent it. I would!

    • Oh yeah, I totally get that ‘not wanting to waste others’ time’ thing. And the feeling of blundering from one slide to another (that you’ve forgotten about) when you didn’t prepare is the worst! Thanks for sharing your experience!

  3. Your first public speaking engagement was a success. Ask your peers from back then how many presentations they remember. Bet your name is right up there. Blessings J x

    • Hahaha, or I would hazard that no one even remembers that moment as starkly as I do. Thanks for the kind words though. I could use these thoughts when I cringe at the recollection of it.

  4. I still get nervous before every class I teach, and I’ve been teaching for 34 years. The best thing I have found to help with nerves is to prepare, prepare, prepare…

    • Omg yes. Preparation does help. I also find that I’m less nervous when presenting a topic that I’m fairly certain I have better knowledge than the audience in.

      For me, the nerves get worse when it’s a new class, having to rebuild rapport and all.

      Great to learn a new thing about you, Jim!

  5. Thank you for sharing your experience with one of our greatest fears. I love what you said on #3. Instead of worrying and avoiding, arm yourself with knowledge. Practice. The more prepared you are, the more confident you will be.

    • I love your comment! Thanks for this perspective. Myself, I find that I’ll always feel not ready enough, no matter how much I prepare. Maybe that’s a defect of some sort.

      So I’ve accepted that the nerves will always be a part of my life, especially when it comes to public speaking.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

  6. In a college Oral Interpretation class, I once juggled while reciting Vogon poetry. It went over pretty well, which is amazing because I was in a deep state of panic for the couple of minutes it lasted, because I was afraid I’d drop one of the juggling balls. For some reason, though, I’ve always been able to speak in front of large groups of people – it was always one-on-one that caused me nerves, until recent years. I love your last two points! “Move forward in spite of fear” is one of my personal mantras. Everything you want is on the other side of fear and you’re never going to get anything if you wait for that fear to go away first. It won’t happen. And, I firmly believe there is no such thing as “failure,” only lessons.

    • Lol, I’m more impressed that no one jumped out the windows when listening to Vogon poetry.

      I, too, can’t handle one-on-one, especially when compared to speaking to crowds! Is that an introvert thing?

      And thanks for sharing your story! I have to admit I never would’ve thought anyone could juggle and do Vogon poetry at the same time.

  7. I can really agree with #2 I call it false narrative. The idea that we have about ourselves, or other have about ourselves which becomes the truth forever. I am not good at sports because I was bad when I was 10, 25 years ago. We have to question these narratives we have about ourselves, and by doing it we can truly improve or develop as humans. so thank you for mentioning it, I find it so important.

    • Oh yes. I still discount myself and end up NOT doing things, just because I think I can’t. I’ve tried doing things just because, despite my doubts, and I’ve found that all my fears and doubts from before I started didn’t really ring true at all. Thanks for adding your point. That’s great to know. Have you broke your own self-doubts regarding sports?

      • Absolutely I have. I have had the idea I am bad at it, and do not enjoy it. Three days ago I sat and created my own work out schedule, writing which mucsle I used and researched which muscles do what. So I can say, it is something I really love doing. And it really made me think, whatelse my false narrative is stopping me from.

  8. Now, if that would have been a movie your dance would inspired everyone else to dance and maybe even sing along and it would have the most feel-good part of the movie… real life can be so harsh!!

    • lolol omg I can picture that exact niche. Maybe I’ll fail the first time around, but then I’ll come back and inspire the entire school, then get together with the popular girl, lolol. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. I laughed so hard at your story about dancing during your presentation. I can just hear the jerk who said you looked like an idiot. Like he’s one to talk. But hey you know what, it actually took a lot of courage to get up there and dance. I hate public speaking, even at a meeting at work with people I’ve known for years or don’t care about. My heart pounds anticipating it and I get all dizzy. I speak for two minutes while my face and ears burn and then say, “Uh yeah well that’s pretty much it.” Nice job drawing all those life lessons out of your experiences. You’re very brave and you give such good advice.

    • I wouldn’t call it courage more than ‘a desire to NOT look uncool’, which backfired pretty badly, lol.

      Yeah, I think public speaking ranks up there right alongside death when it comes to dislike or fear, so I guess we’re all normal in that sense.

      Thanks so much for the support as always, Hetty. Always enjoy having you around!

    • Effort is always the way, isn’t it? No matter what you do or where you are in your journey, there are always ways to get better, which often requires effort. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Pingback: I Bombed The Hell Out Of My First Public Speaking Attempt – palms picture

  11. Really great advice! I remember my first public speaking experience which was an absolute disaster too and for a while I avoided public speaking or even speaking when there are a lot of people around. These days I’m enjoying it a lot more since university seminars forced me to do more public speaking which I really appreciate.

  12. Oof, that is a tough one for your first public speaking experience. I’m glad you were able to re-approach it later and gain confidence with it.

    To add to your first point about your past not defining you, I would say it works the other way too. Sometimes in our youth, we have dreams that seem like destiny, yet they don’t pan out. And that’s ok too! My earliest dream career was paleontologist because I loved dinosaurs, but as I grew I realized that I hate camping and heat, which means digging up bones in the desert was not a good match. I’m not ruling out the possibility that my path could lead to something similar someday, but I’m now much happier being a dinosaur nerd as a side interest rather than a career.

    • Whoa, I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone who wanted to be a paleontologist before, so you’re definitely my first!

      Yeah! I’m all about the ‘discovering who you are by knowing who you’re not’ thing too. I like your perspective on seeing it in a past-you-present-you kinda way though. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and that interesting tidbit about you :)

  13. Relating so much to your past doesn’t define you and the worrying. I have been trying to tell myself a lot of the things you noted in your keys to life! It’s nice to know other people out there struggle with similar things and have found ways to cope. Thanks!

    • And that’s the most I could ever ask for, really. Being able to let others feel less alone is one of the greatest rewards from writing. I really appreciate you stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  14. Reminds me of my first time on stage. I thought I was going to just Barrack Obama it. Till I got on stage. Hands trembling. Voice barely above a whisper. Then the audience just erupted in laughter.

    One of my teachers would later tell me about the three audience truths:
    1. This audience believes I am the expert.” The audience perceives you as a recognized authority simply because you’re the one speaking, she explains. “Plus, you know more than they do about the topic.” “They want me to succeed.

    • 1. The audience believes I am the expert.”

      2. You know more than they do about the topic.

      3. They want me to succeed.

      She finishes by telling me, you have to keep going out there and remembering those truths.

      Now, I may not have the electric charm of Dwayne” the rock” Johnson nor the the inspiring aura of President Obama, but at least I know, when my audience laughs, it isn’t at me😂

    • I do try to tell myself things like this too! Like “I’m here for a reason, or else I wouldn’t have been selected to do this.”

      But I feel that getting the nerves is a good thing too, as it gives me that energy boost required to give a peppier speech.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your awesome thoughts and experiences!

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