PUBLIC SPEAKING PAIN

Yesterday I finished the first week of my face-to-face classes to become an adult educator. It was a tough week of learning and trying to absorb new information, and doing things outside of my comfort zone.

The class was small with about twelve students of differing ages and backgrounds being taught by a knowledgeable trainer. Everyone had similar challenges in balancing studies with life commitments, and so they were supportive and helpful with one another. It was a great atmosphere to be a part of.

Despite some experience with public speaking in previous jobs and volunteering in classrooms, I get nervous standing in front of a group and talking.

It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to children or adults, I’ll still react the same. It could be a bunch of staring lizards and I suspect I’d still get the shaky hands, tremor in the voice and sweating.

On the first day of classes, we had to do introductions. Say your name, why you’re there and what you want to improve on. If you wanted to elaborate further, you could talk about a hobby. There were talking prompts on the board. Sounds easy right? You’re talking about subject matter that you’re an expert on…you.

There’s just something about having the focus of your peers and standing in front of a room that automatically has my pulse racing and my hands wringing. I got through it but internally berated my performance, dissecting it to pieces. I wondered how others felt despite everyone seeming to sail through their introductions.

The next few days, the trainer got us doing one on one, small group and class activities. There were fun learning tasks, short quick “energisers” (quick games to refresh during the arvo slump), and public speaking tasks.

It was rather clever how the trainer worked on building group rapport to create a supportive and comfortable environment for us to do talks. Initially, the trainer got us to do micro public speaking tasks, increasing the time and complexity as the days went on.

By the last day, we had to give a lesson to last twenty minutes that involved a resource of some kind and ideally involved class participation.

I used a PowerPoint presentation on customer service and looked at some of the worst scenarios I’ve experienced. One example involved a customer double parking his Mercedes-Benz in front of the pharmacy and demanding I did his prescription quickly because he didn’t want a ticket. That was used to explain the entitled customer.

After each slide, I tried getting audience participation by asking them their ideas of how I chose to respond in each of the scenarios, using multiple choices as options. It generated some interaction but nowhere to the extent of other people’s talks.

I also got a couple of people up to role-play a scenario but that didn’t work too well. I think I needed to work on my lesson plan and found better ways of generating fun, practical and engaging activities. What I learnt from watching other people do their presentations was that I needed to make my delivery more engaging.

I knew that I’d be more critical of myself, and how I thought I performed wouldn’t necessarily be accurate, so I asked the trainer for her feedback.

Hand tremors, sweaty armpits and hands, shaky voice, racing pulse and jitters aside, I needed to know how I “presented” to others.

The trainer opted for the sandwich method. You know, one good comment on either side of a constructive comment.

“You’re really professional and presentation was great. You could smile more. You look stern, a bit serious. You could inject a bit of humour to lighten the talk. Otherwise, it was good.”

I need to work on my delivery. The problem is, I’m pretty sure smiling isn’t possible when I’m in fight, flight or freeze mode. As for humour, does laughing at your own jokes count?

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MY STRUGGLE WITH SMALL TALK

Do you find it hard to partake in small talk? Does it make you feel anxious? Or do you have the gift of the gab?

There are so many factors required to have a successful conversation with another person.

  • Using exact words to effectively express your thoughts
  • Understanding body language and its nuances
  • Maintaining eye contact
  • Finding a balance between listening and speaking
  • Showing an interest in the person and what they have to say
  • Offering interesting topic threads
  • Remembering to relax
  • Smile

If you suffer from social anxiety, being thrust into situations where you must engage in conversation can be scary. It might feel easier to avoid it altogether.

So why do I force myself to engage in conversation?

I recognise that to communicate and engage with others means social interaction. It means forging new relationships and strengthening others. It means developing my sense of self and belonging.

Ultimately, I don’t want my life to be consumed by my anxiety. I won’t allow it to tear me down. Therefore, I must engage.


Butcher: “Hello there!”

Me: “Hi.”

Butcher: “How can I help? What would you like?”

Oh my God, I don’t know. Sh?t, I better hurry! Sh?t, how do you say that word ’enchiladas’?

Me: “Um. Six en-chill-a-dars please?”

Butcher: “My wife just took one of these last night and upped to Mildura.”

What? What did he just say? Am I supposed to reply? I just want to tick dinner off my list.

Me: “Oh. That’s a long way.”

Butcher: “She loves them. Drove after work last night and got there this morning.”

Okay, I think I’m supposed to say something here. Fudge if I know. Why is he telling me this? Breathe. Relax. You can do this. It’s just a conversation. Be normal.

Me: “Yeah, she must love them to drive that far.”

Did he mean she loves enchiladas? Is six enough for dinner?

Butcher: “My daughter lives up there and had her baby last night.”

How long does it take to wrap these enchiladas?! I can feel my anxiety levels rising. This conversation is hurting my mind. New baby. Ok, so remember to congratulate him.

Me: “My husband loves your enchiladas.”

Butcher: “Thanks. My wife’s already saying she wants to come back.”

You seem like a really nice dude and I’m really glad you’re chatting to me but I suck at this and I feel awkward. Please have mercy on me!

Me: “My husband loves your enchiladas.”

Fudge! That’s not what I meant to say. I forgot the congratulations.

Butcher: “Uh, thanks?”

Me: “Um, congratulations?”

Oh my gosh! He did say his daughter, right? He looks young. I hope I haven’t misheard. This conversation is going downhill. Abort! Abort!

Butcher: “It’s my third grandkid. Here you are.”

Oh thank goodness.

Me: “Thanks. Have a great day.”

I need to get out of here.

Butcher: “You haven’t paid yet.”

Me: “You too. I mean, sorry I haven’t.”

Did I just say that? How embarrassing! I hope the next butcher isn’t as talkative.


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THE SILVER LINING OF BEING AWKWARD

Humans are social creatures. It’s important for us to feel a sense of belonging. This fundamental need drives us to seek company; to form meaningful relationships with others; to engage in conversation. Essentially, we seek to make a human connection. A disconnect can lead to social isolation, loneliness and depression.

I struggled with my sense of identity and belonging throughout childhood and early adulthood. I was an extremely introverted child and shied away from people. I wasn’t able to effectively communicate and therefore, I found it difficult to make friends.

As a grown-ass adult, conversation still doesn’t come easily for me. Unfortunately, I’m also awkward as f#@k. Random sh!t just comes out of my pie hole. On the outside, I might look aloof and confident but on the inside, I’m a jumbled mess of insecurities that could rival that of a fifteen-year-old teenager. My six-year-old daughter has more pizzazz and social skills than I do. It’s really embarrassing. Luckily my friends accept me for who I am, flaws and all.

Recently, I met a mother of a child in the same swimming class as my daughter.


“Hello,” I said to the woman sitting next to me.

She gave me a welcoming smile and asked, “Which one is your child?”

“Oh Mandy,” I replied, pointing at the rambunctious girl doing cannonballs into the pool and getting told off. I rolled my eyes. She had a few minutes until class started and still managed to get into trouble.

“You’ve got a lively one there,” she laughed.

I giggled. “You don’t know the half of it!” Mandy’s a Little Miss Independent.

Lisa, the woman, was a talker. This suited me just fine as it prevented me from any outbreaks of verbal diarrhoea.

“Breanna does choir, ballet and swimming on Saturdays. She does Japanese, tennis and piano during the school week.”

“Oh Mandy does piano,” I threw in. It had been a while since I contributed to the conversation and I didn’t want to look disinterested.

“Yes, piano is so good for the brain. Breanna has done it for a few years now. She’s excelling at the moment. Did you know that music makes children smarter? I’ve listened to classical music since Breanna was in my tummy.”

Lisa rambled on and on. I don’t think she had paused since we started talking. How did she do that? She must have huge lung capacity.

I gave a noncommittal grunt as I watched Mandy attempt breast stroke. I was so proud that she was giving it a go.

“And of course, I had to speak to her teacher about the girl not inviting Breanna to her party. It’s just not acceptable in this day and age.”

I realised I had zoned out. I tried refocusing on what Lisa was saying.

Does she realise she’s monopolising the conversation? Is she a nervous chatterer? Is it possible that someone is more socially inept than me?

Our girls hopped out of the pool and rushed over to get dried. Lisa was still talking. I heard ‘coffee’, ‘next time’ and ‘see you’. My brain connected some imaginary dots.

“Yeah, I’d love to,” I replied, absent-mindedly stuffing Mandy’s things into her swim bag.

Lisa shot me a wary expression and left.

“Mum, why did you say you’d love to when she said ‘see you’?” Mandy asked me with a look of confusion.

“Lisa asked me to go for a coffee next time she sees me,” I said, a little uncertain.

“No she didn’t.” Mandy scrunched her brow. “She said she needed a coffee next time, and she said see you.”

“Oh.” That explained the weird look then.


Yes, I’m socially awkward. Yes, I say random things. Silver linings people. I’m pretty awesome at listening… most of the time.

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