Getting Comfortable at the Front of the Room
I’m sure my sixth-grade English teacher had good intentions, but for one afternoon, she was Beelzebub, as far as I was concerned.
She had assigned my class a poetry project, and, with my 11-year-old’s understanding of what makes “good poetry,” I had pulled out all the stops, writing the sappiest, most cringe-worthy musings on what I then considered “deep” that you can possibly imagine.
Some nascent, adult part of my brain must have realized, though, that this was not, in fact, good poetry. It reeked of insincerity. But hey-it was just an English project. I was perfectly happy to turn it in and be done with it. Until my teacher, demon that she was, announced that we would each choose a poem from our “collections” to read aloud at the front of the room.
I have never been a confident public speaker. At least, it’s not something that comes naturally to me. And in this story lies the proof of that: in front of the class, white-knuckled and shaking violently from nerves, I tore the poem in two. Everybody laughed, but my embarrassment was only as strong as was my relief at being allowed to sit back down.
The fear of public speaking is a common one Fast-forward about ten years.
In the summer between my junior and senior year at college, I started teaching the SAT for one of the major test prep companies. (That job served as my introduction to the world of test preparation, in which I still work today.)
I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of having to, well, teach, but I knew the material well and it was decent money for an undergrad. But after a cursory training course-six sessions totalling about as many hours of practice teaching time, sans real students-I was on my own in front of a class of high-schoolers.
I was beet red the whole way through my first class, as I was through the next class and the one after that. I would bring an extra undershirt to change into during the break, lest I sweat through the one I’d arrived in. I had nightmares of lessons going awry: being unable to answer students’ questions, arriving with the wrong lesson book, showing up an hour late by accident.
Public speaking, for many of us, is hell. I don’t suppose this is news to you, but I want to make it incontrovertibly clear that I am on that boat. Or I was, at least.
Comfort comes with experience & expertise
It took a couple years of teaching before I realized I was comfortable enough doing it. And being comfortable was an incredible feeling. What had once been a source of stomach-turning anxiety morphed gradually into one of surprising calm. During a good lesson, I was actually, ironically, more composed than I was outside the classroom.
Yes, the simplest explanation for this shift was experience. When you deal with it enough, any ordeal becomes a routine. But that’s not the only reason. More importantly, I started to feel like an expert on the material I was teaching. Sure, when I first started with the SAT, I was confident that I could handle pretty much anything that got thrown at me by a test, but by a student? That, I was a bit less certain of.
I was petrified of getting asked something I couldn’t answer. But later, I found that there were almost no questions that were beyond me, and that helped me feel that I actually fit in my shoes-that I was, in fact, a teacher, not just a man acting like one.
Master your material
Confidence at the front of the room, at the podium, in front of a camera, or wherever else you may be the center of attention comes largely from confidence in your material. If you know what you’re going to say well enough that you don’t even need to think about how to say it, then you’re in good shape.
That doesn’t mean memorizing, by the way. There’s nothing worse than drawing blank in front of an audience because your memory fails you. It means not needing to memorize anything. That is, knowing your material so well that you can talk comfortably about it off the cuff. I brought that same mentality to my brother’s wedding not long ago, at which I was the best man and required to give a speech. I used no script, no notes.
I knew the story I was going to tell, and the message I wanted to convey, and there was no reason to have anything else. After all, it was my story that I was going to tell, my thoughts and experiences. And in the middle of that speech, I felt that same puzzling sense of calm that I sometimes have at the front of a classroom. After all, I was the expert on what I was saying-the only one in the room.