Some people are deathly afraid of public speaking.
Like – would rather get a root canal done than have to get up in front of a crowd of people they don’t know and give a talk.
I think it’s because we imagine a sea of judgmental eyes scrutinizing our every move, eager for us to make a mistake – and pounce to pass judgement.
There’s a horrible, wonderful vulnerability to having to get up in front of a crowd and share your ideas and experiences.
In University, I joined a club that was then known as SIFE – Students in Free Enterprise (now called Enactus, which sounds like a bit of an erectile dysfunction pill to me).
The club’s mandate was to empower students to launch projects that created social and economic change in their communities.
My project was SHIFT – I was project manager. SHIFT was, at the heart, consulting – we went in and did Lunch & Learns for businesses on how to employ, retain and communicate with generation Y.
It was a thrill. I loved getting up on a stage in front of sometimes hundreds of executives or C-Level teams and sharing my ideas and research.
It was in this club I would take my public speaking to another level, eventually competing on a national scale. But this post isn’t about that.
It’s about a more important thing I learned, but didn’t realize I had learned, until much later:
The crowd wants you to win.
See, I’m the kind of guy who, at times, is prone to blocking his own shots.
Growing up, I was often the first one to cut myself down – even if nobody else was saying anything negative. Even if nobody noticed what I thought were glaring flaws.
I assumed the world was a sea of judgmental eyes, scrutinizing my every move – waiting to pounce as soon as I messed up.
I think I felt that way because I knew how harsh I could be behind the privacy of closed doors.
We are not all kind people all of the time.
So I somehow internalized the idea that it was me against the world; went on a quest to try to walk perfection’s laughably impossible tightrope – and was the first to announce when I’d fallen off, lest anyone else have the chance.
I expected the feedback after my first SHIFT sessions to be harsh. No executive wanted to hear some punk kid share their mind, right?
But see, the world ain’t like that.
People rallied. Most feedback was positive – or if not, encouraging.
Tonight, I went to Pecha Kucha in Calgary – #23, called “Jam”. It’s a series of talks where the speaker has 20 slides 20 seconds long that automatically advance.
Inevitably at each Pecha Kucha event, someone loses their place, falls behind, stumbles on their words. The slides plod mercilessly on.
But the crowd doesn’t boo. They don’t jeer or roll their eyes. As pointed out by my fiance, it’s actually a rare moment where you see humanity’s kind side come out – the crowd silently willing the speaker to get back on course, quietly (or sometimes not so quietly) encouraging the speaker.
“You can do this! You are awesome! Keep going! C’mon!”
There are claps and cheers. You can feel the whole room leaning forward to embrace the speaker, hoping, wishing, cheering for their victory, spurring them on to finish strong.
The crowd wants you to win.
I’ll be keeping that in mind as I prepare for one of the biggest talks of my life coming up in June.
But more importantly, it’s a nice reminder. The world is not all bad. People are not all cruel. Sure, some are. We like seeing the crashes at Nascar and the open ice hits in hockey, after all.
But if you are earnest, vulnerable and open, the majority of people aren’t waiting in the wings to watch you fail.
When you realize that, public speaking – and taking risks in general – isn’t so scary after all.