I joined the Smithsonian chapters of Toastmasters, partly as a way to connect with a new community and partly as the next step in my ongoing effort to conquer my fear of public speaking. People who know me through my online presence or have heard me speak, may be surprised that I have any fear at all. From just a few meetings I’ve already learned much from this incredible Toastmasters group.

Watch video here. Transcript follows.

Introduction: Sarah Allen. She’s new to our club. She’s a new member, and without hardly any hesitation at all, she signed up to give her first speech, her “icebreaker,” which we’re very excited to hear about. Sarah told me that although she’s had a lot of experience with public speaking, she still has a tremendous fear of public speaking, and the reason she joined the club is so she can pick up some great tips to manage that fear, and actually harness it maybe to be a positive thing. She tells us she would, also, like to learn to not say “um” so much. So, let’s get her up here for her first test. Sarah, is going to speak to us about fear therapy.

Thank you Mistress Toastmaster for that fabulous introduction, and I am going to speak about a different kind of fear, unlike mountain biking, which Don just spoke about.
I’m afraid right now. Maybe some of you have experienced this kind of fear. I am very aware of every inch of my skin. I have this knot in my shoulders, and my neck feels like there’s this nylon string pulling up that just might snap, and my head would then float away. This is absurd. This is an irrational fear, right?

When I was a little girl, I was impossibly shy. I was afraid to talk to people that I didn’t know. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to speak to people that I didn’t know. So, today I will tell you a little bit about my life, and the techniques that I’ve learned, applying what I call “fear therapy,” forcing myself to do things that scare me.

I wasn’t timid in general. I was actually pretty adventurous. For example, I loved to swim. When I was two years old we moved to St. Lucia, and I’m told I went swimming in the ocean every day. When I was five, we moved to Boston, I went swimming in the Mystic Lakes, at the boat club, at the pool, and I loved to go to Cape Cod, especially when the waves were wild before a storm, and I could duck my head underneath and they quiet to this dull roar.

We moved around a lot. I realize I was particularly good at speaking languages, new foreign languages, perhaps because I listened more than most people. In fourth grade, we moved to the Philippines, and my mom tells me that I learned to speak Tagalog in just a few months. The following year we moved to El Salvador, and she would find people who were Filipino and spoke Tagalog and bring them home for dinner, and I would not say more than a few words. Suddenly years later I realized that the Spanish that I learned in El Salvador completely replaced Tagalog. Because I had refused to speak, I completely lost this language. So, I resolved to stop letting my fears prevent me from living the life that I wanted to lead, and being the person that I wanted to be.

The first technique that I share I call “jumping off the cliff.” Just like I would enjoy jumping off a cliff into a pool of water, and I thought that was fun, I would let the experience that I wanted to have pull me through my fear. So, after high school when I studied German, I pushed myself off a cliff, and I moved to Switzerland, where I knew no one, and I became fluent in German, and I practiced turning strangers into friends by actually talking to them.

The second technique I’ll share with you, I call the scripted response. I came back to the states for college, and I became a software developer. I loved the way that symbols and numbers in my mind could turn into sparks of color on the screen, and I made software that made these picture dance. When people asked me what I did for a living, I told them I was computer programmer, and that generated this awkward silence. My boyfriend told me that I should tell people that I made special effects for films, which was sort of true because I made software that helped other people make special effects for films, and it did work much better in conversation. I felt a little dorky by getting by boyfriend help script my conversation, but I learned to speak with words that other people could really understand and connect to. And over time, I’ve developed a lot of these scripts in my head, and they become stories that help me stitch my memories together, and help me connect to new people.

I have many techniques that I can apply in my fear therapy sessions. Since I jumped off a cliff, and decided to go on this six month fellowship at the Smithsonian, I face my fears every day. I’ve always had trouble articulating what exactly I’m afraid of. I felt it must be fear that something terrible would happen, that people would make fun of me, or think badly of me, but it strikes me now, reflecting on this, that it’s a different kind of fear altogether.

Nelson Mandela made famous a quote by Maryanne Williamson that our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. I think I was always afraid that these sparkles that was in my mind would come out as meaningless trivia or bland words that created distance, instead of bringing me closer to people.

Thank you all for creating this group, and this safe space, and I hope that my talk sparks a connection with a few of you today.

Note: Special thanks to Jason Shen for recording my talk

One thought on “public speaking: fear therapy

  1. You inspire.

    A wonderful tale of growth, complete with Steps to Reproduce.

    Great job.

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