I spent the first half of my life avoiding public speaking at all costs, even in small group settings. I certainly never imagined my future career would involve being a keynote speaker.

In high school, I was so shy that my English teacher read my essays to the class for me. And college wasn't much better. When I had to speak at weekly team meetings during my internship at a hospital, my heart would pound so hard that the name tag hanging around my neck would jingle.

Once I started my career as a psychotherapist, my work mostly involved working one-on-one with clients. Since I didn't have to do any public speaking, I never felt the need to address my anxiety.

But a series of unexpected events helped me face my fear head-on. And now, I love public speaking.

Here's how I conquered my fear of public speaking:

I Reduced My Risk

My first invitation to give a speech was at my high school graduation. I was the valedictorian of my class, and school officials informed me it was my duty to give a speech. But as our graduation date drew near, my anxiety skyrocketed.

I kept imagining horrible scenarios, like the audience laughing at me or booing me off the stage. Those haunting images distracted me so much that I couldn't even write my speech, let alone practice delivering it. I knew had to do something to reduce my biggest fear--the audience’s rejection.

I gathered my friends and we hatched a plan. No matter how terrible my speech was, they'd stand up and cheer like they'd just heard the world's best rock concert. Once they assured me of their applause, my fear subsided enough that I could move forward with my speech.

I Focused on the Audience

The next time I delivered a speech was six years later, when my mother passed away unexpectedly. I wanted to share some of my most treasured memories, so I volunteered to give the eulogy at her funeral.

For the first time ever, I didn't worry about how the audience might perceive me. I didn't care if I stumbled over my words or if my hair was out of place. Instead, I focused on making sure the audience heard a few special stories about my loving mother.

Sadly, my next speaking opportunity came three years later when my husband passed away. I joined several other family members in speaking at his funeral. And much like when I delivered my mother’s eulogy, I didn't care about my public speaking skills. I only cared that the people in attendance gained a little more insight into what a great man my husband had been.

I Changed the Messages I Gave Myself

Grief gave me a new perspective on many aspects of my life, including public speaking. Compared with losing my loved ones, giving a speech no longer felt so scary. Forgetting my lines or stumbling over my words no longer felt like catastrophic problems.

So over the next few years, I accepted opportunities to do a few speaking engagements. When I received an invitation to speak to a group, I no longer told myself I couldn't do it. Instead, I assured myself that talking to a group of people paled in comparison with other things I’d endured.

Even though I still felt feelings of panic at times--my heart would race and my palms would sweat--I’d tell myself I was going to do just fine. I knew critical self-talk would only hinder my performance, so I practiced using a more compassionate inner monologue.

I Took One Small Step at a Time

As a therapist, I knew exposure therapy is the best way to beat anxiety, so I gradually worked my way up to speaking in front of larger audiences. Over the course of a few years, I went from teaching college classes to facilitating large workshops. With each opportunity, I gained confidence in my speaking ability.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I wrote an article that went viral and it landed me a book deal. Before I knew it, invitations to speak at national conferences and major conventions rolled in, and fortunately, I was eager to accept new opportunities.

Although I didn’t initially set out to conquer my fear--and I certainly wish I could have learned some of those lessons in an easier way--I’m grateful that I no longer experience the intense fear that used to accompany public speaking.

If you’re afraid of public speaking, I’m certain you can overcome your fears too. A few changes to the way you think about yourself and your audience, and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone a little bit at a time will help you gain confidence in your ability to command the stage.

Published on: Jul 23, 2015