I LIKE CHALLENGING myself to do hard things. I guess it’s just the way I’m wired.
Recently, I started thinking about the hardest things I’ve done. Convincing my wife to marry me was hard. She was a tough sell. But eventually I wore her down and got the deal done—one of my best deals, by the way.
Attempting Ironman Cozumel at age 68 was hard and, even though I failed, it’s one of my most cherished memories. I enlarged a picture taken of me exiting the water after the swimming segment, and put copies up on the walls of my office and my pain cave in the basement. To motivate me, I also had a magnetized copy made for the refrigerator door.
Whenever I look at that picture, I think of Rocky after his first fight with Apollo Creed. My right eye is swollen shut and I have a look of pure exhaustion on my face. Every time I look at the photo, I break out into a big smile and laugh to myself. What was I thinking?
Believe it or not, writing a book was hard—perhaps even harder than Ironman. I’d never been any sort of writer before. But whenever I get emails from readers telling me my book helped them escape retirement hell, all the hard work feels worth it.
After much reflection, however, I think the hardest thing I’ve ever done was speak in front of an audience. I’m not sure when I developed stage fright. It might have happened when a teacher gave me a hard time after a presentation in grade school. Or it might be the imposter syndrome I suffered from while working in the corporate world. Or maybe it was a bit of both. It got so bad that sometimes, when I was in a meeting and they started going around the room doing the usual introductions, I would excuse myself, pretending to go to the washroom and coming back after they were done.
I turned down a number of promotions because of my fear of public speaking, and it ended up costing me a lot of money. Although I really wanted to and needed to overcome my stage fright, I couldn’t get past it.
But things changed after I wrote my first book. I knew I had to go on the road, giving talks to promote the book. I wanted to help as many people as I could figure out this retirement thing. That was my big “why,” so I finally had to deal with my stage fright. I was caught between a rock and a hard place, and there was no other way out.
That’s why I decided to join Toastmasters, which met every Thursday night. I remember the first meeting as if it happened yesterday. I was sitting in the parking lot, trying to find the courage to go in, but bailed and went home. The following week, I bailed again.
The third week, it was make-or-break time. I knew if I didn’t go in that night I would never be back. Thankfully, I finally made it into the meeting room. A friendly lady approached me right away and started up a conversation. They know first-timers are uncomfortable, and they try to calm you down.
I remember asking her to do me a favor. She asked what that was, and I said, “Could you please lock the door? At some point I’m going to make a break for it, and I don’t want to leave.”
Hearing that, she smiled and walked over to the door. I heard the lock click. That’s when the sweating and hyperventilating started. I was trapped and there was nowhere to run.
Staying there that first night was hard, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But it was also one of the greatest things I’ve ever done—because it was life changing.
I kept going back and, because of that, I don’t have to live with a lot of regret, wondering what could have been. Today, I really enjoy giving speeches and conducting seminars.
What I learned from doing hard things is that we’re more capable than we think, and we can accomplish some incredible things if we want it bad enough. I plan on doing more hard things with the time I have left. How about you?
Mike Drak is a 38-year veteran of the financial services industry. He’s the co-author of Longevity Lifestyle by Design, Retirement Heaven or Hell and Victory Lap Retirement. Mike works with his wife, an investment advisor, to help clients design a fulfilling retirement. For more on Mike, head to BoomingEncore.com. Check out his earlier articles.
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Thanks for sharing, Mike. I joined Toastmasters a few months ago, and will be giving my 1st speech (i.e., ice breaker) in another couple weeks. Public speaking is a very important component of communication, and will pay lots of dividends if we keep getting better at it. Thanks.
Mike, I can very much relate to your struggle, and so happy when I hear of those that have overcome it. I realize it can be hard for some to understand how this can be so debilitating – but it is. No doubt sharing your story will help someone.
Excellent article. I have always thought I was the only one in the world who feared public speaking, and like you I don’t know for sure how it started. I never even realized men experienced severe anxiety over public speaking. I heard of Toastmasters decades ago but never got around to joining. You’ve inspired me to go.
Please join… they are wonderful!! I am an introvert and in spite of my shyness .. Toastmasters has allowed me to feel comfortable talking to any size audience … either 10 or 5000. Still shy when doing 1:1 thou! 🙂
I’m so happy that you are going to join. It is life changing for sure.
You joining Toastmasters to overcome a fear of public speaking reminds me of Warren Buffett who took a Dale Carnegie course on public speaking for the same reason. Great article.
Yes and look how much fun Warren is having speaking at his annual event. Public speaking added to his life.
Great article, Mike. Every time I’ve seen a survey of people’s “greatest fears”, public speaking ranks right up there.
During my working days I had the opportunity to give CLE (Continuing Legal Education) presentations numerous times. As John Yeigh said, no matter how often you do it, there are still butterflies.
Rick Connor mentioned making the presentation more of a conversation. I agree, and you can kick it off by asking for raised hands on a certain issue and then calling on someone from that group. It’s also a good way to keep everyone paying attention—no one wants to appear to be drifting off and then get called on!
A few other things I found helpful:
If possible, visit the venue where you’ll be speaking beforehand. It really adds to your comfort level just to get a feel for the physical layout.
Know your audience. What works with one group could be a big flop with a different type.
A self deprecating style usually helps. The most valuable lessons we have to share are often the result of our mistakes. Being open about these usually results in a more sympathetic audience.
Thank you Andrew. Speaking has turned into a form of art for me and it puts me in a state of flow. I’m always reading articles on how I can improve upon my performance and I enjoy and study great speakers in action. Still lots to learn!
When I give speeches, I like to have a lavalier microphone. That way, I can walk around, which not only allows me to engage with different parts of the audience, but also lets me burn off some of my nervous energy.
Mike, what a great article!
Many of us know exactly the fears you went through; I still have them. My employer offered Toastmasters but I never took advantage of it because of fear.
Who are some of the notable speakers you admire, commanded your attention and wished you had the same ability to deliver?
Thank you Olin and you should reconsider your employers offer or join Toastmasters on your own and keep the secret to yourself. Speakers I like are Seth Godin and especially Zig Ziglar. My dream would be to speak like Zig.
Mike, thanks for sharing your story. I always found that if I could turn a presentation into a conversation, I felt much better. I welcomed questions that made it more interactive, especially if the topic was in my comfort zone. Late in my career I moved from an engineering and engineering management role into business development. I hated the “sales” part of it. It was not in my nature, but I learned I how to focus my energy on the parts I did enjoy – technical discussions, listening to the customer’s problems, and getting to know them. That made it much easier. Congratulations on taking on big challenges.
I agree completely that it’s better for everyone when it’s more interactive. The audience is far more engaged that way compared to the “save your questions for the end” approach.
Thank you Rick and I agree interactive talks are much more fun. These days I talk about my life experiences and what I learned from them which is much easier for me.
Although I’ve given hundreds of presentations, I still get butterflies even if the presentation is to kids to promote youth-sports advocacy from my book. Practice, practice, practice is my go to remedy, and once I’m two minutes in, the butterflies are gone.
I agree with every thing you said John. Once I start rolling IÈ ok starting is the hard part.