Fear of Public Speaking

Public speaking used to mean two words: Fucking terrifying.

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A lot of people have told me “Oh well you were a model so public speaking should have been easy for you” which for me was utter BS. It was one thing to perform or stand in front of a lot of people, another thing entirely to push words out of my mouth in a cohesive sentence and not turn beet red and want to crawl off the stage and die.

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I remember when I was in junior high and I had to give a short speech on Greek fashion. I remember being excited about the project until I realized I had to say the word “breast” in front of all of my classmates. I pretty much puked the word out and went every shade of red and purple and silently prayed to every deity I could think of to just strike me down and put me out of my misery. My teacher took pity on me and gave me a good grade, but I had let that moment anchor what I thought public speaking was going to be like for the rest of my life and avoided it at all costs from then on.

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Fast forward through life a number of years, through fire performing, modelling, and various career choices, I’m sitting at my computer looking at an email that’s got me running at level 10 anxiety. As far as my brain is concerned there’s a fucking jaguar trying to maul my ass but all I’m doing it staring at a few words. A friend and local lady photographer had asked me to give a lecture at her studio. Shit.

I had known that I wanted to teach at some point, but had never really had the incentive to stand up and say “Hey! I’m gunna do this!” so instead the universe pushed me off the cliff anyway and here I was responding very uncertainly “Yes” with a novel of fine print that the course might actually be *fucking* awful and that I’d never spoken in front of a class before. We priced it cheap and made it only 3 hours and kept the crowd small and understanding.

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I collected two of my trusted hair and makeup ladies who I knew would have my back when I would inevitably have an epic meltdown in my imagination and I asked my sister to model for me. This was so outside of my comfort zone I crushed as much of my regular comfort zone things into this arena so the only thing I would be left to lose my mind about was having to open my mouth.

I didn’t sleep the night before. The entire night my ego was having a whirlwind time throwing every reasonable and unreasonable fear in my face and turning my normally coherent brain into whipped hamburger. If I had a friend who spoke to me the way my inside voice does sometimes, I’d change countries just to get away from them.

The day of the lecture I remember staring back at all the faces and I felt like a tiny mouse about to be eaten by a very large snake. Everyone was eager and patient with me, but at one point I had to make everyone sit on the floor so I could sit with them so I could hide the fact that I was feeling like I was going to faint in front of everyone.

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The fortunate thing about talking about photography though, is it’s nothing like Greek fashion and having to say words that make me uncomfortable in front of people who will take any excuse to make fun. Teenagers are assholes. Photography is my best friend. At some point it was just like finally shutting down the crazy person in my head who was yelling at me that I was a failure and a dweeb and knew nothing and just started doing what I know best, except I had to remember to talk my process out.

It was rocky, and I went longer than the original 3 hours, which I did a fair bit at other lectures in the beginning. Practice, like anything, gets closer to perfection.

There’s lots of challenges when learning to speak in public, and like anything else I’ve done in the past, I just threw myself in the deep end and learn how to swim after choking on a fair bit of salt water. If you’re wanting to get in to teaching or public speaking here is my advice from my experience. This list is by no means complete, but it’s some things to ponder.

Speak how you want to be spoken to

I approach it as if I’m giving advice to my younger self. I talk to the people in the class the way I would want to have someone teach me. I find it keeps me authentic to myself and keeps me real. It’s not for everyone, but nothing is. This means, for me, that I have dry sarcastic humor, I sometimes say bad words, I laugh, and I mix in a ridiculous amount of tips and tricks like seeds because someone might have room for them in their creative garden. It is thick with information, but delivered in words and language that I find engaging. This is pixels, not open heart surgery. Fucking laugh a little!

I’ve had people come up to me after a lecture and give me the riot act on all the things they think I did wrong and that I should go back to school. I’ve also had people come up to me after lectures crying because they were so moved by something I had said or they had some major artistic breakthrough that changed everything for them. Whatever your style, there probably will be people who resonate with it and people who don’t. However most people can smell fake from a mile away.

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Involve your audience.

Look every person in the eyes, let them know you see them. Asking questions is a great way to see who’s actually awake, especially when engaging a crowd of hundreds. Nothing wakes people up like the fear of possibly having to answer a question in front of others. Public speaking is 1 of 2 top fears, right next to death. Use that power and keep people alert, but do so gently. It also helps to reinforce the information that you’re covering.

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Shit is going to go wrong.

It’s not a workshop if it doesn’t. I’ve had lights fall, models be late, makeup artist not show up, computer crash, projector bulb blow at the very last second, mic malfunction, storms shut down the power, locked out of locations, and sometimes extremely loud and obnoxious attendees who like to draw all the attention on them. It’s going to happen, so don’t let it stress you out. It’s not if, it’s what, when, and how many times.

I had one lecture where I had an extensive number of things go wrong to a very large crowd. I was horribly sick coming back from overseas and had only slept 2 hours the night before. Lights didn’t work, computer didn’t sync up to the projector, triggers malfunctioned, the tethering failed, then camera shutter blew up, the mic stopped working, and a few other things. It was pretty incredible. It was so much that all I could do was laugh about it. I made a few jokes about how the tech gnomes had come in the night before and trashed the place because everything *did* work the night before. I borrowed a camera, triggers, rebooted the computer, had to find batteries for the mic, and so on. In short, we pulled through. Had I freaked out and made a huge scene about it, it would have looked really bad. So, if you’re going to speak, just remember, expect little things to go wrong and expect that you will have to manage it with class. Do your best, and don’t worry about the rest. You can’t control everything, but you can control how you react.

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You don’t know everything, you just know some things that others don’t.

The best part of teaching in my opinion is that I learn something new almost every time I teach. In the middle of a class I’ve had attendees say “Hey I’ve learned to do what you’re doing but in way less steps!” I love hearing this. In the world of creative instruction, there’s a million ways to do the same thing and I always love seeing new techniques. I don’t know it all, I just happen to push buttons enough times to get something that works for me. Admit when someone actually has a valid technique that may improve what you’re trying to relay and grow from it.

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They are not there for you, you are there for them.

As a speaker, it’s not about how many people attend your class and how that makes you look good or feel good. You are providing a service. So don’t get some crazy fucking ego about how many people are sitting in front of you. Also don’t get insecure if you only have a few seats filled. It’s all fine, either way. You standing up in front of everyone means that you are there to help fill gaps in their knowledge. No one is looking for the same thing, no one is going to create in the same way.

Sometimes people fall asleep.

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes, and the first time can be kind of jarring. It’s happened to me at shows before where everyone has been up late the night before and the lecture just happens to be really early in the morning and they’re still awake and drunk from the party you were all at 3 hours ago. Or perhaps they were up late with a sick child or they caught a late flight in because they couldn’t get the time off work to get in at an earlier time. Don’t take it personally. We don’t know the stories behind peoples eyes and it’s not our place anyway. If the lights are dim, turning up the lights for a second “to find something”, or giving everyone a break will usually do the trick discretely. If it’s distracting other people in the class, a gentle tap on the shoulder while you walk around the room talking will sometimes also work. Try not to embarrass them.

For master classes I usually bring a bunch of candy and hand it out to the class while we work. It keeps their mouths moving, prevents excess talking, and throws some sugar into their system while we batter away at pixels on the computers.

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Just fucking do it.

Start small, start with whatever you’re comfortable with. Not every artist, no matter how good they are, will be a great teacher. They are two different skills. However, if you never try, you will never know. Do one-on-one sessions with someone that you trust and have them give you feedback, whatever. Be prepared to suck, and be prepared to grow. If you don’t take those first steps out of your comfort zone, you will never know. I think this speaks to all choices in life.

I still don’t sleep the night before I lecture, and I’m cool with it. I still get nervous before I go on stage, but it doesn’t really bother me. It’s part of the deal, and I accepted that there are some things that I don’t like but I’ll do anyway. I would rather manage those feelings than carry around the memory of not doing something out of fear. I’ve now lectured for WPPI in Las Vegas, PhotoPlus in New York, Professional Photographers of Canada, Creative Live, Intel, SmugMug and many more around the world.

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The question then becomes: If speaking is on your “to do list” can you deal with the nagging feeling of never knowing, or can you stand up to your fear and do it anyway?

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