Getting Past the Nerves of Public Speaking

2016-04-01 13.35.47
Presenting at the Fairfax Virginia Genealogical Society Conference (April 2016)

I have battled my fear of public speaking for as long as I can remember. In high school I really wanted to be a part of our school plays, but my shyness prevented me from succeeding in more than bit parts or being behind the scenes. I kept trying though because I loved the atmosphere and eventually participated in competitive speech during my senior year. While I have never been good at extemporaneous speech, I found the “individual events” to be exactly my thing. I memorized a ten minute monologue where I played four different Russian characters from the play “Fools” by Neil Simon. I did well at it, but still the nerves would overwhelm me beforehand. I would feel sick to my stomach and shaky. Even though I had it memorized, I still would freak out.

In college I started to come out of my shell. I joined Alpha Phi Omega and found a great group of friends who shared my love for community service. Within this group I was affectionately called “Al” due to the large number of Jens, Jennifers, Jeannes, and Jennies. I even had a theme song “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon. This awesome group helped me thrive. I became president of the chapter for two years and it was a blast. I ran the chapter meetings and did my best to follow Roberts rules of order while still making it fun.  After graduation I remained involved and went on to give presentations at conferences on the local, regional, and even national level. I still got nervous, but it didn’t prevent me from being involved. I just never got comfortable. I figured I was just going to have to learn to live with the nerves.

As my engineering career progressed I held leadership positions, gave presentations, and spoke at public meetings. When my company urged me to take a Dale Carnegie course, I was not at all excited about it. Despite my anxiety about the prospect of speaking in our group every day… I soon learned a lot of tools that made meeting new people and coping with conflict in my job significantly easier. I found some confidence and made new friends. It was a great experience and I learned so much from the readings we were assigned. To this day I use the same skills I learned during that course.

When I began my genealogy career I knew that speaking and teaching was something that I wanted to do. My first experience was in 2013 when I gave a beginner’s workshop at a local library. As always I was nervous, but I forged forward and I believe that my enthusiasm for the topic would make up for it. I had a lot of fun doing it and so I continued pursuing speaking for groups. While I have a number of national, regional, local, and webinar under my belt I was still feeling the nerves!

Then something changed.

I encountered an unusual phenomenon this year at the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference… none of my normal public speaking jitters! For years whenever I knew I would have to speak in front of a group I would get an upset tummy and feel really nervous. I am not sure what exactly I was afraid would happen, but just the thought of standing and speaking really freaked me out! So what changed? Have I gained more confidence? I don’t know what changed, but I have now experienced what it is like when I have enjoyed public speaking. I have found how very interesting my fellow genealogists are! I genuinely have come to enjoy getting to know my audience.

So imagine my surprise when after 20 years of forcing myself to speak publicly, I suddenly had fun and didn’t feel the nerves! It might be a fluke, but recently while listening to “The Genealogy Professional” podcast, Blaine Bettinger described this very experience! Perhaps there is hope that this phenomena will continue. Have you ever experienced something similar?  I’d love to hear about it!

10 thoughts on “Getting Past the Nerves of Public Speaking

  1. Jen, what a wonderful post on conquering your fear! And, I might add, you have done it well. You are an excellent speaker, and are very easy to listen to.

    I applaud you, dear Jen, for choosing to do a hard thing. You have every reason in the world to be proud of yourself.

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  2. Speaking about something you love seems to be a bit easier. I , like you and Blaine am finding it something that I really enjoy. Especially speking to beginners. It’s so fun to get them started on their genealogy jouney. Great post, Jen! I’m somglad I got to hear you speak at Rootstech/FGS last year. You did a fantastic job!

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    1. Thanks Cheri! I love speaking to beginners! To see the enthusiasm and ideas spark… it’s so rejuvenating for me. I am glad you are spreading the love and experience you have in genealogy too. It’s well worth the time!

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  3. Jen, thank you for sharing your experience. I too was very shy and backwards growing up and was a wall flower in high school. I was a self-employed business owner working from home for 15 years and didn’t have to deal with the public much. So, when I decided to become a professional genealogist and then start speaking, lecturing and teaching I was shaking in my boots! Even with webinars, I can’t stand the sound of my own voice, it sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me. I have found that the longer I do this, the better it gets. After 5 years of teaching a local genealogy class, a year of doing webinars I am doing much better. I applaud your openness as I am sure there are many of us out there!

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    1. I am glad that you have found your voice… Even if you don’t like the sound of it. *grin* i have heard that some speakers adjust their voices to be lower to be taken more seriously! Regardless, I think teaching is a great service and that it is well worth the nerves. Keep at it!

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  4. Great post. I think we really just need to keep at it, and build the skills and experiences and then the confidence will come. I enjoyed meeting you and hearing you at OGS. I look forward to more. And I too love You Can Call Me Al. That has to be one of my all time favorite videos! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uq-gYOrU8bA Just can’t get over Chevy mugging and Paul trying not to crack up.

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  5. I empathize with you completely! I’ve had a fear of public speaking for as long as I can remember. My career as a medical transcriptionist was a wonderful choice as it kept me behind the computer, not in front of it. However, when genealogy began to be more of a hobby for me, I realized I wanted to help others learn. So, I founded a genealogy group in the region of my home state, and I knew I’d have to get up in front of groups and speak. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and did it! Not always 100% successful, but I did it nonetheless. Recently, I gave a short presentation where, when I stepped up to the mic, there were no jitters or shakiness and the speech went off without a hitch. It’s not easy (what ever is?), but I can mark it off my bucket list and begin enjoying it! Thanks for sharing your story!

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    1. Thanks for sharing! I think it must be something about finding the right focus for your public speaking that changes the reaction. I’m a lot less nervous when I’m speaking on a topic I love!

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