Overcoming my fear of public speaking

Each week in my public health management class, we read and comment on blog posts in the Harvard Business Review. One post, entitled Fear Means Go, got me thinking about all of the fears I had to face on my way to making a career change to public health. A big one for me is public speaking. When you have a fear, it is easy to feel like you’re the only one that has this fear. You look at everyone else around you and think, “Wow, they seem so comfortable up there. I could never be like that.” I guess I’ve never had a reason to want to overcome this fear…until I decided to pursue public health. Such a big part of working in public health is contributing ideas in meetings, presenting research and projects and educating the public. As Lara Galinsky wrote in Fear Means Go, “fear was a compass — an indicator of the direction you should go in if you want to become the person you have the potential to be.”

The semester before I started my MPH program, I enrolled in a public speaking workshop at the Open Center in New York City, and found people who were even more scared of public speaking than I was. Our first exercise was simply to stand in front of the class while everyone had their eyes closed. By the end of the workshop, we gave a short presentation teaching the class how to do something. We used hand gestures, moved around, made eye contact with the audience and…had no notes! Every single person in the class participated, even those who were too nervous just to introduce themselves on the first day of class.

After the public speaking workshop, I enrolled in a Michael Chekov acting workshop (also at the Open Center). It was not a performance class in which we had to memorize lines, but rather, we engaged in playful exercises designed to act out an emotion or idea using whole body movement and tone of voice. It was a freeing experience to forget all about feeling self-conscious, and focus only on embodying the message I was trying to deliver.

It has been nearly two years since both of those classes, and while I still get very nervous speaking in front of audiences, it is no longer the terrifying experience it once was. During my public health fieldwork, I listed public speaking as one of my goals. At the end of the internship, I spoke to a group of incoming interns about my experiences and presented (in a group) in front of my entire bureau on my project. Opening my mouth when I have something to say is coming more naturally, and I feel comfortable contributing during class or during meetings. It’s a work in progress, but I’m glad to say that I confronted one of my biggest fears, had fun in the process and most of all, survived!

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