Want to Know Your Greatest Gift? Look Under Your Fear

For all of my life, I’ve had a crippling fear of public speaking. When I say crippling, I mean mind-altering, mood-altering, body-altering crippling fear.

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Photo Credit: Joost Nuijten, Creative Commons

In high school, when I was asked to give a speech in front of my Language Arts class, I cried to my teacher each day after class until the the speech day arrived. I remember thinking she would have to let me out of this, given how distressed I was.

Anything less would be child abuse, right?

Wrong. My choices were I could give the speech, or I could take an F. I was a straight-A student, but I seriously considered taking that F. Instead, I read directly off of my note cards as quickly as possible, making eye contact with exactly no one in my class. As I read, my hands shook, my voice shook and my armpits sweat.

After I finished, I excused myself to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall, and buried my head in my hands until the next class.

The next speech I had to give was during my senior year of college.

We were traveling through Germany with a group of students on a study tour about WWII and the Holocaust. We had very little homework that semester, got to travel though Europe, and received college credit. Every college student’s dream, right? Our one task was to research an event from WWII and present to the class at the location where that event had occurred.

In other words, we were supposed to give a speech.

And even though the speech was only to 25 people, I panicked. I would have rather read 100 books and written 100 essays than given that speech. I begged my professor to let me out of it. “I’ll probably faint,” I said.

He told me, “You need to remind yourself—you know something your classmates don’t.”

His words stuck with me, although I resisted them. I gave the speech, with shaky hands and an even shakier voice, and the whole time I was thinking: “If my classmates wanted to know what I know about the holocaust, they could just read the gosh darn book!”

But later, his advice came back around in a really good way.

Last September, I published a book. And apparently, when you call yourself a writer, people begin calling you a speaker as well. This seems strange to me, since writers tend to be introverted types—more comfortable behind their pens and computers than standing in front of thousands of curious eyes.

But the strange thing that happened for me was, the more I wrote, the more I desired to speak in front of people. It was weird, but suddenly I felt like, if I didn’t overcome my fear of public speaking, it would be as if I was rejecting a gift I had been given to share with others.

It would be like I was rejecting a part of myself.

So, I sought the help of my friend.

Her name is Amy and she’s a speaking coach, so she helps people overcome their fears of public speaking all the time. She worked with me to get comfortable on a stage by looking people in the eyes and having short, one-on-one conversations with each of them. It helped. When we were practicing, I felt more comfortable.

But then I would go speak in front of a few audiences—and still feel the way I always had.

Shaky. Sweaty. Miserable.

Then, Amy told me: “You know, I think your fear is mostly in your head. What you need to remember is that people want to hear from you. They invited you to their event. You wrote a book, after all! You have something to say.”

It was the same advice my professor had given me, wrapped in a different package.

And this time, it made perfect sense.

I did have something to say. I had so much to say I had written an entire book about it. And if someone were to ask me about my book, I could sit and have an hour long conversation about it, no visible shaking necessary.

The next time I stepped on stage, I kept all of that in mind. “I have something to say,” I kept telling myself to calm the butterflies. “They invited me here to share what I know.” and “It’s just like having a conversation.” I still felt a little nervous, honestly. But when I stepped off stage this time, I was met with something totally unexpected.

More than a handful of people told me that day: “You seem like you were made for this.”

And you know what? I truly believe I was.

It’s funny how often this happens—how the thing we were made to do winds up being our biggest fear, and that fear winds up keeping us from it. I’m not sure what it is for you. Public speaking, maybe. Writing. Launching a business. Being a mom. Starting a ministry. But whatever it is, I just want to say: I know the fear can be crippling.

But I also know something else: You have something nobody else has. You know something they don’t know.

And if you choose not to share it—to hold it back—that’s your choice. But the world will miss what you were supposed to give. And chances are, you’ll miss it too.

Not to mention, if you aren’t sure what your gifts are—if you’re still trying to figure that out (most of us are)—pay close attention to your greatest fears. Often they point you in the right direction.

9 comments on “Want to Know Your Greatest Gift? Look Under Your Fear

  1. Thanks for writing this Allison. I have dealt with these same fears for 40+ years. I do think there’s so real anxiety issues in there somewhere, but you give me hope. Thanks!

  2. When I was in my teens I had crippling shyness on top of my extreme introversion. It was a horrible combination. But I read, all the time, and I read a lot of leadership and success books, and over time I realized that the ability to speak to a crowd was vital.

    So I made myself learn. 4-H, church contests, whatever. I gave the worst speeches. My second 4- H speech I was so terrified that my hands turned grey and pulled into claws from a lack of circulation, I couldn’t even hold my notes except between my wrists. LOL The man running the event stood abort a foot away, my mom pointed out later it was so he could catch me when I fainted.

    Now I do improv comedy. And I gave a speech at my college graduation that moved a lot of people, getting me a lot of “you’re such a natural” comments. And I think you’re 100{9ac618bfda39dd0c8c9a0232963cb9a2adfe54a7367c2d4954ad9e847b2e5305} right- our fears coves our strengths. I wish I knew a better way to explain it to people though, so many tell me “I could never do that” or “you’re so good, a natural, on stage”. And I want to shake them sometimes. Because it’s not natural, it’s 16 years of terror and throwing up and crying and panic and even now of sitting in my car before shows and convincing myself to try again. Our fears may cover our strengths but knowing that doesn’t lessen the fight we have to have to get to them.

  3. Such a good word, Allison! 🙂

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I’d like to grow my business (and my brand) by doing more public speaking—and then I tell myself how silly that sounds. Me? Speaking in front of people? Yeah right.

    But this point about knowing something that they don’t, about sharing something with the world—that’s pretty awesome. I had butterflies just thinking about public speaking as I started reading this post, but this awesome little gem instantly calmed them (and even made me excited about finding an audience to speak to).

    Thanks for being bold and brave—and inspiring me to do the same.

  4. Hi Allison, i just start following your blog few weeks ago and i found your articles are refreshing. You have inspired me to get a head start in writing and share my faith with others. God bless!

  5. “And apparently, when you call yourself a writer, people begin calling you a speaker as well.”

    Ever since I started blogging more, and then the few articles I wrote on Prodigal, I have been asked to share in chapel at Fox several times, as well as in church a couple times. And I feel the same way about public speaking! Shaky. Sweaty. Miserable.

    Maybe I need to get Amy’s help! 😉

  6. Well obviously I LOVE this blog. You leaned in 100{9ac618bfda39dd0c8c9a0232963cb9a2adfe54a7367c2d4954ad9e847b2e5305} in an area you felt was holding you back. And now look. A natural on stage! So proud to know you. And I’m inspired to consider the fears that hold me back from sharing my gifts. Good stuff!

  7. Great article, Allison. I used to feel the same way about getting up in front of people. In my job, though, I was forced to hold meetings and deliver information or training and, in time, I found that I actually enjoyed it. I also had a band for a couple of years and as the front man I always felt very awkward and nervous. Way more than I felt in front of a group of coworkers. But, I always found a way to introduce humor and have fun with the audience. It never felt completely comfortable but people would tell me that I appeared quite natural at it so it would seem my fear and nervousness were completely self-induced. It definitely gets easier with practice. Thanks for your sharing your thoughts on this.

  8. Oh! I am horribly afraid of public speaking. I KNOW the fear is all in my head, but my head rules the rest of me! I don’t throw up before public speaking now, but I still have a quaver in my voice.
    I am going to re-read your post until I’m convinced that “I have something to say.”

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