When I walked into the conference room for my first meeting at the company I worked with, there were 20 people in the room, mostly male, discussing sales and business plans and strategy. It was an interesting session. But I could barely bring myself to speak though I was brimming with ideas; I did not want to draw attention to myself. In fact I mostly sat on the sidelines without saying a word during the entire meeting.
After that, I went to many such meetings, observing and listening to colleagues who debated about and analyzed projects, deliverables, revenues, sales strategy and annual plans with intellectual depth and at immeasurable length. And I continued to play wallflower.
There I was, with nearly ten years of experience in the industry, feeling unable to share my experience or knowledge, except with small groups (the smaller the better!)
Written communication had never been a problem, but I realized that I often used the written word as a refuge. Such behavior from a Communications professional was baffling, but these episodes became a significant stumbling block. I used to walk out of these meetings feeling hollow and frustrated.
What were the reasons for these brain-scrambling episodes?
Low self-esteem? Fear of being ridiculed?
Perceived intimidation of the male bastion in the boardroom, or a dysfunctional set of vocal cords?
Sometimes it felt that the average male, even the unprepared ones were able to sail through the toughest meetings (read: skeptical audience) because of an amazing amount of self-confidence. Or so I thought!
As I got sidelined I realized that the problem was me - not the men in the room.
This fear stemmed from within, from the so-called perceptions I had of myself, which when transmitted and projected onto others, became a reality. I gave them the image I had of myself —nonverbally--and they believed it to be true. Talk of silence communicating volumes!
All was not lost. Indeed, there was some light at the end of this silent tunnel. After some soul searching, I forced a game change - for myself, by myself - I began taking every opportunity I could to speak out at discussions, even if it were something inconsequential. Initially, it may have led to some nervous gaffes but I found as more opportunities to speak came my way, it had me walking out like a dragon slayer! And guess what, speaking up, speaking out in that conference room made me bolder, braver with each instance.
Before you think that I’ve become the world’s best public speaker and can hold forth in front of a large audience with élan, well, far from it. What helped me make small changes were the passion I felt for the subjects being discussed and a genuine need to participate and add value. The camaraderie that developed with my colleagues was an added bonus and went a long way in getting rid of my rigor mortis.
I recently presented to a 500-strong audience in a large, forbidding auditorium. I could hear the tremor in my voice and didn’t sleep too well the previous night; but I told myself that I was simply grappling with one of the most common fears in the world – the fear of public speaking.
And even if I stumbled, which I still do, I believed I had something of value to deliver to those who had the time to listen. I now sit at the table, and when I speak, they listen.