Overcoming My Greatest Fear

Fear of public speaking is a major reason why more people don’t participate. While there are many reasons for this fear, there is one predominant factor – we overestimate the risks of communicating our ideas in front of others, viewing the speaking experience itself as a threat to our credibility, self-esteem, and self-worth. In other words, we are afraid of appearing foolish and unprofessional in front of others.  In order to tell our stories, we need to get in front of people. Addressing this fear is part of the journey for some.

For much of my life, I was terrified of public speaking. I would do anything to avoid this dreaded task. But these days I undertake about 150 public speaking events a year.

I can trace my fear of giving speeches to an event that happened in the third grade. Our assignment was to write three paragraphs about Abraham Lincoln. Since I was a student who often completed tasks the morning they were due, I took a shortcut and copied two long paragraphs directly from the encyclopedia. I felt confident although I was cheating. 

When our papers were returned the next day, mine was marked unsatisfactory, but this was not the end of it. My teacher asked me to stand up. When I did, she asked if the text I had written was my own. I said yes. Of course, I lied. She asked me again. I said yes, a second time. 

She told me to read my paper to the class. I knew I was in trouble. I looked at the essay and realized that I didn’t understand many of the words I had copied down. Since the content was well beyond my reading ability, I couldn’t do it. Having no choice, I began to read, often stumbling over many of the words. Every time I looked up, hoping she’d allow me to stop, she told me to go on. Clearly, she was making an example of me. 

From that moment, I developed a terrible fear of public speaking. If I couldn’t get out of a required speaking assignment, I spent days before the event with unrelenting fear, suffering from constant mini panic attacks. Most fears, like mine, are based on an irrational criterion. But like many people, I allowed my fear to control me.

Professionally, I am required to give presentations on a regular basis. Public speaking is an integral part of my work in development. But decades after the third-grade, I still suffered before every talk. Instead of getting easier, it got worse. The anxiety, trepidation, and loathing took control of my life. 

About fifteen years ago, I thought about the innumerable people who faced audiences every day. What was I so afraid of? Something had to change. So, I decided to face my fears head-on. I was tired of the fear controlling my life. 

Finally, whenever presentation volunteers were needed, I stepped up. While my heart would say, “don’t do it,” my mind took control. The process was not easy but something amazing happened – I was able to rid myself of the sensation of dread and eventually feel confident and secure with each event. This came about after doing as many talks as I could. Repetition was the secret to my success.

While I never eliminated my fear completely, my public speaking continued to improve. Now I realize that a little fear is an important ingredient for a passionate speaker. Fear helps fuel my passion for the subject, inspiring my words and giving them more emotion and power. 

Our fears are sometimes self-generated. Often, they are based on past events that hold us back. Facing our fears may seem difficult and frightening, but the payoff is enormous. 

Published by Matthew S. Friedman & Sylvia Yu Friedman

Matthew Friedman is an international keynote speaker, the CEO of The Mekong Club, and a former United Nations and U.S. diplomat. A leading global expert on modern slavery, Friedman has more than 30 years of experience as an inspirational and motivational public speaker. Check out his latest powerful Penguin Random House memoir, Where Were You? A Profile of Modern Slavery. Sylvia Yu Friedman is an award-winning filmmaker, investigative journalist, international speaker, serial entrepreneur, and advisor to philanthropists. She is the author of three books: A Long Road to Justice: Stories from the Frontlines in Asia (Penguin Random House); Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women, the only journalistic account of Japanese military sex slavery during the Second World War, and Heart and Soul: The Life Story of Pastor Augustus Chao. Sylvia is a serial entrepreneur and works with family offices in Asia and the U.S.

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