Monday, December 12, 2011

How a Public Speaking Phobia Almost Destroyed My Career

One of the things I've observed about life is that people who are successful often have to make dramatic changes to the way they think about themselves, and to their behaviour patterns, in order to achieve their goals and dreams.
Self-change is not easy.  At times, it requires a head-on confrontation with our deepest fears.  Yet, unless you're willing to change yourself, the chances are that you will not fully achieve what you desire.
One of the examples from my own life was my fear of public speaking.  About the time I turned 13, I suddenly became very awkward self-conscious, and this in turn led to a deathly fear of any form of speaking in public.  Standing in front of a class and giving an oral report was terrifying to me.  The mere thought of it brought on a full-blown anxiety attack, complete with palpitating heart, sweaty palms, parched throat and shortness of breath. 
Giving oral reports became so noxious that there was only one way I dealt with them.
I refused to give them, no matter what the cost.
This wasn't a big problem during junior high or most of high school.  If I was supposed to do an oral report, I just played sick that day or skipped class.  By the next day the teacher had usually moved onto something else and forgot about it.  If not, I simply took a bad grade and didn't give it further thought.
But when I reached the 12th grade, I decided I wanted to go to engineering school and got more serious about my studies.  I signed up for a chemistry course which was taught by the girls basketball coach.  This woman was the proverbial Teacher From Hell.  She was 6' 3" had a personality that was about as kind and gentle as a freight train.  In all fairness, though, she was a fantastic chemistry teacher, and I made straight A's in her class all through the fall semester.
Then, at the beginning of December, she made the following announcement.
"Every student with a B average or higher must do a science project and submit it to the Vanderbilt Science Fair.    In April, you must do a 15 minute presentation for our class."
I felt like a nuclear warhead had just been dropped in my lap.  I immediately made the decision not to do a science project.  If I didn't do one, how could I do an oral report on it?  The fact that she said that our entire mark that six weeks would depend on it was bothersome, but I could deal with that later.   
By the time April rolled around, I was sweating bullets.
When the day of my presentation came, the teacher looked expectantly at me and nodded.  "Mike Wells?"
"I didn't do a science project," I muttered.
The transformation her face underwent was worthy of a horror flick.  "Excuse me?"
"I said, I didn't do a science project."
The classroom was dead silent.
"May I talk to you privately?"  she said, through gritted teeth.  She marched me out into the hallway and shut the door so the rest of the class couldn't hear.  Towering over me, she said, "What do you mean, you didn't 'do' a science project?"
I shrugged.  "I just didn't do one."
Pointing the classroom, she said,  "If you don't get up there and say something, you're getting an F for the entire six weeks.  Do you understand me?"
"You do whatever you need to do," I said.  "I have nothing to present."
As promised, when I got my report card for chemistry at the end of that six week period, there was an angry-looking red F across the top, with an asterisk next to it.  The footnote said Science project—refused to comply.
I'd like to tell you that my bold actions with that teacher was the result of sheer courageousness on my part, but there was more to it than bravado.   Two months before science project was due I been admitted to the Vanderbilt School of Engineering.  At that point, I was sure that Vanderbilt wouldn't change its mind about letting me in just because of one bad mark in a class.
But my admission to Vanderbilt had a catch.  I had a weak background in math and science, so I had to pass a pre-engineering summer school that the engineering school ran for students like me. 
The summer school was taught by a heavyset, bearded professor of civil engineering who was even more intimidating than my chemistry teacher had been.  The course was broken into eight two-week modules.  As he passed out the syllabus to me and the 40 or other slackers who were in the same boat, the blood drained from my face.  Module 3 had caught my eye:
Communications Skills:  Each student will give a 10 minute oral presentation.
The moment that class was over, I went to the professor's office.  He was already sitting behind his big desk, looking very busy.
"Yes?" he said, without even glancing up.
"I'd like to talk to you about that oral report we have to do."
"What about it?"
"It's just that...I can't do it."
He looked up, frowning.  "What you do mean, you can't do it?"
"I don't do oral reports."
"Oh?  Well, we do do oral reports.  And if you don't do one, you don't pass this course."
"And if you don't pass this course, you don't go to engineering school.  Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," I said.
I was trapped. 
The reports were scheduled for mid-July.  My anxiety escalated with each passing day.
Finally, I came up with an escape plan.    One of my uncles was a physician, I begged my mother to ask him to write me a doctor's excuse to get me out of the presentation.
"A doctor's excuse?" she said.  " I don't understand."
"He can say I have a clinical phobia about doing oral presentations."
"Don't be ridiculous, Mike."
"It's not ridiculous!  He could say that it would be dangerous for me to do an oral report."
My mother rolled her eyes.  "You have stage fright, like everybody else.  Just do the report, Mike."
"Mom, I can't!  If I have to do it, I'll die!"
I badgered my mother until she finally caved in and asked my uncle to write me the doctor's excuse.   Which he did, reluctantly.  I'm sure he thought it was as ridiculous as my mother did, but I was certain it would work.
When I presented the paper to my professor, he silently read it, then handed it back to me. 
"That's fine.  You're excused from the assignment."
"I am?" It had been so easy I was caught off guard
"Of course you'll receive an Incomplete in the summer school."  When he saw the look on my face, he said, "You don't think a doctor's excuse gets you out of fulfilling the course requirements, do you?   A doctor's excuse gives you an extension to do the work later, when you're well."  He smiled.  "So as soon as this 'phobia' is cured, you can come give your oral report and join the rest of your friends over in engineering school...that is, if they haven't already graduated by then."
As the day of the report approached, my anxiety escalated to gargantuan proportions.  I might as well have been on Death Row, waiting for the electric chair.
I couldn't eat.  I couldn't sleep. 
The morning I was supposed to give the talk, I was so beside myself with anxiety I did not even feel human.  My slot was scheduled for 8:15.  The only way I could think of to calm myself down was to drink some beer.  Just two, I thought.  That way I could still think clearly enough to give the report. 
At 7 am I was buying a six pack of Budweiser.  Tall boys, just in case.
The weather that morning was ominous—cloudy and blustery, with heavy intermittent showers. By 7:20 I was in the woods across from the engineering building, crouched under an umbrella, downing one beer after another.  I paused and belched, gauging my anxiety level. Two cans didn't seem to have any affect.  I gulped down another.  And another.  Still no effect...
At 8 am, I made my way over to the engineering building, thoroughly soaked—and not just with rainwater.  Despite the fact that I had consumed an entire six pack of tall boys on an empty stomach, my thinking was remarkably clear.  When the professor called my name and I started walking to the front of the classroom, I noticed that the gusty wind outside was causing the entire building to sway back and forth so much that made the floor tip to and fro, like the deck of a ship that's being tossed around in a gale.  I made a mental note to track down the architect and report it as soon as my talk was over.
I have no recollection anything else.  I only know that my worst fears—that the other students would snicker and make fun of me—were not realized.   They could not even look at me.  It was far too painful for them.
I received a D- on the report.  But I didn't care.  I may have made a spectacle of myself, but at least I had gotten through the summer school.   
 From there on out, it was smooth sailing.  Freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, senior year...I not only managed to get through engineering school without every doing another oral report, but  I earned a master's degree in engineering, too.  Most of the classes didn't require oral reports, and in the few that did the reports were for group projects, I always negotiated my way out with the other students– "I'll write everything up if you do the oral report.  Deal?  Deal."
Then I decided to get a PhD.
My advisor quickly noticed that I was a good writer.  By October he had me penning what would be my first academic publication,  a joint paper with both our names on it.  It was about the research we were doing, and it would be submitted to an electrical engineering conference in San Francisco. 
"This is very well-written," my advisor said, as he finished reading my first draft.  "You'll have no trouble presenting this in San Francisco."
"I said you'll have no trouble presenting this at the conference in San Francisco."
"Yes, you.  Who else?"
"But I can't present a paper at a conference!"
"Why not?"
"Because—you don't understand.  I don't do public speaking."
"What do you mean, you don't 'do' public speaking?"
"I can't speak in front of groups.  It's impossible.   I have a phobia."
He stared at me, confused.  "How the hell do you think you're going to get a PhD if you can't speak in front of a group?   How are you going to defend your dissertation?  You'll have four other professors besides me there, plus an audience of five or ten people!"
"And how are you going to teach classes?  I thought that was one reason you wanted to get a PhD."
"I do want to teach, but—"
"And how can you have your own business if you don't 'do' presentations?  Isn't that what you said when you applied here, that you wanted to start an engineering consulting firm?"
When I tried to argue with him, it only made him madder.  Finally, he pointed at me and said, "You're going to San Francisco, and you're presenting this paper.  If you don't, you can forget your PhD.  Now get out of my office!"
I spent the next few weeks in a deep quandary.  I seriously thought about dropping out of the doctoral program...but when I really considered it as an option, it felt so cowardly.  And I kept thinking:  am I going to let this destroy all my dreams, ruin my career? 
In the end, I forced myself to go to San Francisco and present the paper.  It was intimidating, let me tell you, especially having only spoken once in front of a group—while drunk—since I was 12 years old.  There were 200 people in the meeting room, mostly engineering grad students just like me, along with a bunch of professors.   All of them knew just as much or more than I did.
But once I got started, I wasn't as frightened as I thought I would be.  I was older, more confident, and the presentation was about my own research, something that I truly cared about.  Sharing what I was doing with a lot of other people with common interests sparked a tingling of excitement in me. 
I know that on the whole, the presentation was pretty bad.  But afterwards, several people in the audience came up to me and asked questions about what I'd said, and seemed genuinely interested in my work.  This did a lot to raise my confidence level.
When I got back home and told my advisor about it, he said, "You could be a fine public speaker if you really wanted to, Mike."
I was taken aback. "You think so?"
"I know so.  Anyone can be a good public speaker—it's just a matter of wanting to become one, and focusing that.  Public speaking is just like anything else.  It's something you learn."
Today, 30 years later, I'm no Tony Robbins, but I can stand in front of a crowd of 500 people and give a talk and get decent feedback on it.  I feel almost as comfortable standing in front of a group, even a large one, as if I were standing in my own living room.
But back in school, if anyone would have told me, "Mike, one day you'll be a good public speaker and will feel completely at ease talking in front of groups" I would have thought that person was stark, raving mad.  I would have argued vehemently against it, explaining why such a notion was impossible, that I have a phobia about it, that it's just not my "personality type", not in my genes, blah blah blah.
We human beings are capable of incredible change, especially when we want decide we want to change.  Sometimes we only change as a last resort, when refusing to do so blocks us from achieving our goals and dreams.
The path that I've pursued to become a successful writer has forced me change in many different ways, some of them as dramatic as overcoming my fear of public speaking.  Here is a list of various "I can'ts" that, at one point or another, were blocking me from achieving my writing dreams:
I can't promote myself
I can't deal with rejection from agents and editors
I can't write without inspiration
I can't write synopses of my own books
I can't write without an outline
I can't write with an outline
I can't create my own website/blog
I can't design my own book covers
I can't write and work a full-time job

If you are a writer, do any of these sound familiar?


  1. Very well written.This could be the best example/lesson for any one to overcome any type of fobia.all the best.

  2. Oh, yeah. Very familiar. I admire you for getting over your fear of public speaking, Mike. I don't know if I could, but then I'm not sure if I really want to badly enough... The writing "I can'ts" though, those are something worth going for. :)

  3. I think the one that hits home for me is "I can't promote my writing." But that is the one I am working on right now. I'm on Facebook, I have a blog, a full website, an author's page at Goodreads and at Amazon ... it's a tough economy, but it has always been a tough economy during my thirty years of teaching. That's part of why I feel I can't promote myself - I taught in public schools and walked a fine line between presenting and promoting ideas.

    But I'm retired now, and can work on it.

  4. I really enjoyed this post. I also had a very terrible phobia of not only public speaking, but also talking to people during any situation. To say that I was an introvert is putting it mildly.

    I hated feeling so vulnerable.

    After a whole bunch of effort and some life experience, I now have no problem standing in front of thousands and speaking.

    By overcoming that horrible fear, I have come to believe that anything I set my mind on accomplishing can become a reality. Well, almost anything.

  5. When I was reading how you responded to public speaking, I felt like I was reliving my own experiences. To have an anxiety attack just because you have to speak in front of people seems so ridiculous, but I have struggled with it my entire life.

    I never dodged doing my reports in college. I just did them and embarrassed myself since I could barely speak, and I looked like I needed oxygen.

    When I learned that as an author I will need to speak to groups about my novel, I lost it. I’m thinking, I’m a writer not an actor. So, I know this issue is something I’m going to have to deal with. Thanks for the encouraging story.

  6. What a great article. It's unbelievable yet somehow reassuring that you once felt this terror.

    I feel the same as Hammer - whenever anyone asks about my book my mind goes blank and my mouth goes dry. I've even thought the main reason I'm so happy to have self-published is that I'm not expected to go and speak to anyone - there are no scary literary festivals or book signings, it's just me safe at home writing. I should try to address this fear - it's limited me all my life. I could have done so much, yet my terror of speaking in front of more than three or four people has been a constant companion, like a fifth person who turns a welcoming few into a terrifying crowd.

  7. Nicely written on boosting the self-confidence! I really enjoyed the article throughout and agreed that everyone needs 1 motivational boost to kill the phobia inside.

    For me it worked slightly differently, I was very shy since childhood and always found it difficult to be comfortable around bunch of people, never stand for presentations, hardly took initiatives to socialize. To make a long story short, this phobia affected me every way possible until I spoke to that girl. She was studying medicine in 12th standard, when I was 13 years old and I asked myself everyday - would you ever talk to her? because it was a little hard not to stare. One day my best friend told her that I wanted to speak with her (without my knowledge) and she replied can you ask him to meet with me in second school break?

    When I came to know about it (Ah! can't say - it was like blood ran out of my veins) every subsequent moment was killing me apart. Anyway the armageddon began and my friend convinced me to go, after sometime she appeared with her group of friends (Not more than 12) and I was like;

    Myself: Let's go back before they come close to us?
    Friend: (He insisted) Stay on the ground and assure that you remember the pitch? :o
    Myself: Are you nuts - can't you see the force behind her?

    Anyways we can't do anything because she was standing just a few steps away (with her friends), and suddenly my friend pushed me to face the trouble.

    Myself: Initially, looking at the ground with long silence (and trying to convince myself - face it!).
    Girl: Hi!
    Myself: Ermm Ermm Heya!
    Girl: Your friend said that you want to talk.
    Myself: Ermm me? No/Yes/No. And the next big thing - actually can you be my girlfriend? (Lol still, I don't know how did it came through..)
    Girl: Excuse me. I'm already engaged and we can only be good friends.
    Myself: Ok (with smile and returned back after) thanks for coming.

    After that moment, I felt like already took the step towards killing my phobia. And since that day I succeed in every step of my life and still hit the ground running with confidence. She's one of my best friend now.

    That's my story!

  8. Public speaking and writing a synopsis are my shortcomings, but I'm getting better at synopsis!

  9. This blog could help many people including my 16 year old daughter. She has this phobia also. She wants to be a social worker and help people. I'll have her read this and hopefully she'll learn from it. Thank you for posting this at the right time for me..

  10. I'm on a bus about to go for the biggest job interview of my life which involves a five minute pitch - you've no idea how much this post has just helped calm my nerves and force me to re-evaluate my own hang up's of public speaking. Here's hoping I don't vomit!

    Thanks Mike

  11. Mike, I enjoyed reading this - is there any chance you can add some more detail about what the actual speech was like when you did it at school the first time? I know you can't remember much, but it would be so interesting to hear a bit more about what you were thinking, seeing, saying, how you go through it.

  12. I fear public speaking. But I occasionally have to force myself to do it. I get up there with a prepared speech, get partly through and start doing this shifty shaking thing and you can hear it in my voice. No matter how many times I've confronted that specific fear, it's never become any easier. Even karaoke requires a good buzz before I can get up there and do it. Even though I know I'm good! I still can't look away from the screen because that means I have to acknowledge there are people there watching me. Hell I've sang on stage with tv stars at a convention...still, the anxiety is there. I do it, but it's scary as hell. I try not to let my fears get in my way of 'living'. But as far as getting over them? Hasn't happened yet.
    Flying? I'll do it if I have to. But I am terrified the whole time from lift off to touch down.
    Irrational fears: sky and water at night.
    Building my own website isn't a fear, but rather something I feel I'm too old to learn at this point. I've always had someone to handle those things for me. Does that mean I shouldn't figure it out? Maybe. Maybe not. lol

  13. Not only have I had to deal with the "I Can'ts", but I've also heard a lot of "You Can'ts". As a young adult, I let that influence me. Now that I am older (and hopefully a bit wiser) I refuse to listen to any negative remarks. Great article.

  14. This was a good article! I just found you on Twitter, so now I definitely have to read one of your books! Happy St. Patty's Day! =)

    1. Thanks, glad you liked it and Happy SPD to you, too!

  15. Mike - How wonderful that you are sharing your story about fear of public speaking! So many others can relate to and benefit from your story. I too had a debilitating fear of speaking and being the center of attention that prevented me from being successful as an actress. The crazy thing is that my fear was so strong that it forced me to figure out what was going on inside me and to find new ways to transform tension into flow and anxiety into excitement. I ended up developing the Zimmer Method to transform stage fright and fear of public speaking and even wrote a book about my discoveries. The book is called It's Your Time to Shine.

    One great thing I have learned is that people who have the most fear have the potential to be amazing speakers because they have the feelings. Their feelings are up to the surface where they can be used to create genuine emotional connection with listeners.

    Another thing I have learned is that the problem is not really about speaking! It is about learning to be comfortable at the center of attention. Once you can feel safe being the center of attention, speaking comes easily.

    I hope these ideas help your readers. For more, I invite people to visit

    Thanks for being an example of authentic speaking and writing!

    Sandra Zimmer

  16. I don't enjoy public speaking either. It was always a long hard slog--a stoic virtue. It got somewhat easier in time but never completely resolved. So I have to say that for the last few of hours i have been hooked by the impressive articles on this website. Keep up the wonderful work and if you want more info about this topic then visit how to overcome fear of public speaking.

  17. "I don't do oral reports." - this was the funniest sentence from the whole article :)))