The Speak Easy program, Part 2: Arachnofobia and Fear of Public Speaking

This is a very personal story about my fear of speaking in public.

I have previously indicated I have had a great fear of speaking in public. It is not limited to a public event but in fact to mostly any kind of groups of people I don’t know. In fact even with people I know, I get nervous. Why? I think it is the feeling of being observed, judged that scares me. With that in mind it might be difficult to understand why I have chosen a career which in fact requires speaking to groups of people I don’t know very well, almost every day. It actually sounds crazy when I think about it.

Why I have chosen to follow the path that have led me to where I am today is thanks to my ambition to:

  • learn from my mistakes, even when they hurt so much you think you never want to do this again
  • continuously improve myself
  • share my experience, so that others might learn from it
  • help others to improve and find there strengths

So how did I reach to the point where I held my first recorded international presentation (Visualizing Testability at CAST 2015)? Let me first share a different story about fear.

Capturing the spider

Ever since I was a kid I’ve had what you would might refer to as a light degree of arachnophobia. I would panic in the near sight of a spider. I would start sweating and behave completely irrational.  As a child I refused opening the windows to my bedroom when it was hot outside. I would rather sweat and not be able to sleep because of the heat, than opening up an opportunity for a spider to get in to my bedroom.

One time I was laying in my bed, reading a book, when I noticed in the corner of my eye, something crawling on my pillow. The horror I felt when I saw it was a spider is completely irrational. In Sweden where I live, we don’t even have any poisonous spiders, at least not any that would be lethal to humans. That night I slept on the couch in another room, since the spider had disappeared before my parents could catch it and was not to be found any where.

When I got older I realized I couldn’t rely on my parents or other people to help me out every time a spider appeared. The breaking point was the day where I had just gotten a new apartment and my parents were helping me to move. My new flat already had an inhabitant, a spider and I panicked. I was lucky to have my father remove it. I believe I was in my twenties! This could no longer go on. What would I do next time a spider appeared?

I decided to take control of my fear. My process was rather straight forward. It has taken many, many years to get to where I am today. I still don’t like spiders, but I can control my fear a bit better. So what did I do?

catchspider

When searching for what resulted in this picture, I realized I can still easily lose control over my fear. Search for “spider in a glass” and I think you will understand. I had to bring out one of my tools from my tool box. It’s the same one I use when I get nervous on stage. I use the Deep breathing technique to calm myself down.

  • I trapped the spider with a glass
  • I slid a stiff paper under the glass
  • I watched the spider closely
  • I lifted the paper and the glass and threw the spider in the toilet (yes, sorry all animal friends, this is what I did)

It sounds easy, right? Well it wasn’t. I cried the very first time I caught the spider. The first times I left the glass with the spider in it standing for days on the floor. I also let the glass with the spider in it standing on the paper on the floor for days. I’ve made horrible mistakes using too thick paper, leaving a gap large enough for the spider to escape when trying to slide the paper under the glass. I have used glasses that were too small and completely missed the eight-legged monster. I’ve tried to throw the spider out the window and it blew back and landed on me! Yes it might be funny now. But I was surely not laughing at the time.

When I became a mother,  I had even a bigger incitement to not let fear take control over me. I wanted to be a role model and show them how you can overcome, or at least take control over your fear. When I think back to my childhood and think of how I felt when a spider appeared I can only wish I had dealt with my fear earlier.

Getting control over the fear of public speaking

It might sound like a cliche, but the more you practice the easier it gets. I don’t know how many spiders I’ve captured with a glass but today it feels a lot easier than it did many years ago.

After a speaking incident that left me with low self esteem and tears, and with a new upcoming presentation only six months later I knew I had to do something about it. On top of it, this presentation was THE presentation, my first presentation at a conference, which happened to be Let’s Test. It was THE presentation, where so many of the testers I respect would be. It meant a million to me and I didn’t want to fail again.

I used a similar approach as in treating my arachnophobia. I decided to accelerate my learning and I  was lucky enough to have a boss who supported me and agreed to pay for me to consult a speaking coach. We met 10 times before my presentation. So what was the process:

  • Speak – the moment we met, he made me stand in front of him and speak
  • Recording me speak
  • Watching the recording of me speaking
  • Showing me a structure of the speak
  • Immediate feedback
  • Challenging me – continuously challenge me to take control over the space.
  • Making me practice – over and over again
  • Setting up a sub target – a speaking event where I could practice before THE conference

The process was not easy. I don’t think my coach knows this but I cried at home during the process too. I doubted many times that I could go through with it. I doubted that I could have a dialogue with the audience. I doubted I could engage the audience and get them to respond to me. I doubted I could be or do all those things he challenged me to do. The thing I remembered the most was our second encounter where he immediately told me to get up and speak. I couldn’t get a word out of my mouth.

Since then I have only spoken three times in public counting my first presentation at Let’s Test. My last presentation at CAST went pretty well I think even though I was so nervous I couldn’t remember very much of what I said. Luckily it was recorded and I’ve managed to force myself to watch parts of it. I have also had several workshops which I don’t feel the same about. I actually love workshops.

I believe you too can take control over your fear of public speaking. That is what is so great about Speak Easy. It’s a program where people voluntarily wants to help you! You can choose for what you would like to be mentored for. Some one in that program might be able to help you as my coach helped me. The two main things to summarize my process in overcoming the fear of speaking and to get better is:

  • Practice – As easy as it sounds it’s all about practice, practice and practice. The first time I couldn’t even stand in front of my husband and present. You would think that would be easier than practicing in front of your coach. To me it wasn’t. Practice is not only about practicing your speech in front of the mirror. It is also to practice in front of people, so that you can receive…
  • Feedback – To be able to improve you need some kind of feedback. Perhaps not as part of the process of overcoming fear, but in order to accelerate your learning and improvement. When you know what you do well you might feel better about speaking in public. There are many ways you can do this. I think you can to some extent do this on your own to. You can record yourself and watch it. However I am my worst critic and prefer to ask others for feedback. The feedback I ask for needs to be constructive. If people liked my talk I would like to know what they liked. I also want to know what I can improve and how, though I mostly already know that myself.

I have come far but I still have a long way to go where perhaps I one day will even like speaking in public. Today I have reached the phase of where I have taken some control over my fear. I can now hear some of you asking: “Why do you even bother to speak in public if you don’t like it?” That is a very good question, and I will elaborate on a few of the points I did in the beginning of my post next time.

Now I wonder, what keeps you from speaking? What is your fear? How can you learn to take control of it and trap that spider?

This is the second of a few post in a series related to being a mentor for the Speak Easy program. The Speak Easy program, Part 1: Becoming a mentor

 

The Speak Easy program, Part 1: Becoming a mentor

Speaking easy, really?

Speaking in larger groups or in front of people has never been easy for me. My heart starts pounding every time I’m in front of people. Some times I have to look down at my chest, certain you can see my heart pounding through my t-shirt, like in a cartoon.

I used to hate speaking in front of people. If I could avoid it I would happily do so. Ironically I’ve chosen a career where I need to speak in front of people; in project meetings, to my team and in all sorts of context at work. It is also quite funny that my new job will be teaching software testing in a vocational program. To hate is a very strong word and a very serious matter. I don’t hate speaking anymore. I don’t love it either. Yet I choose to do it! (I will get back to why I do it and when I actually felt comfortable in a new post)

In my career I have done very few official speaking events, such as speaking at conferences and meetups. Though the ones I’ve done have been a real challenge and a great experience.  Now a days the biggest reason for speaking very occasionally is the time it takes for me to prepare ( I will get back to this part too).

My reasons for becoming a mentor

Given the background it might seem strange that I volunteered to become a mentor for Speak Easy. But the program which Fiona Charles and Anne-Marie Charrett have started is something I am very passionate about and the main reasons for me are:

  • The possibility to influence bringing diversity to the arena, specifically tech conferences.
  • The possibility to support speakers or new speakers who might share my experiences.
  • The opportunity to give something back to the CDT community and people who have supported me and helped me throughout my career.

I will go deeper in to some of the reasons in a few upcoming posts.

Kudos to Eric Proegler for the idea of creating a series of posts!

This is the first of a few post in a series related to being a mentor for the Speak Easy program.