“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.
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.
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.