Public speaking – how I went from a nervous wreck to now being able to speak infront of large crowds

I grew up in a beautiful little place called Lake Rotoma, in the Bay of Plenty of New Zealand. 


From the age of 5-12 years I went to Lake Rotoma Primary school where there was approximately 50 students.  We all knew each other really well, and in a school that size we didn’t have many opportunities for public speaking.  Yes we had our class speeches but we all grew up in each others houses so it wasn’t a big deal getting up and speaking infront of my friends.  At 13 I went to high school, a 30 minute drive away where there were 800 students.  It certainly was a shock to the system, especially since I’m naturally quite shy (although I’m sure people who know me from work would be surprised to know that – I’ll explain more later!).  Every year in my English class we would have to present a speech.  Every year I dreaded it.  I had to stand infront of a class full of students who I barely knew.  Even before I got up the front to talk, my hands would be shaking, my heart pounding and then when I was up the front my voice would be shaking.  It happened every year!

When I became a teacher at 23, I still dreaded public speaking.  Teachers would have to take turns hosting assembly so at my current school that means talking in front of over 700 students plus 200 adults.  Up until about 2 years ago I still dreaded it, as I got older the nerves became worse.  Before speaking in front of a crowd I would feel like I was going to vomit and my heart was beating so fast and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  Every time I had to speak infront of an audience I would write down exactly what I would say.  When I was up the front my hands would shake and I could hear my voice shaking.  It was terrible.  To try calm my nerves and distract myself I would take up a paper clip which I would fidget with.  I can’t tell you the exact moment but about 2 years ago some thing changed because I don’t dread speaking in front of 900 odd people. anymore.  Sure I do get a little nervous but once I start I’m fine.  I think things changed because 3 years ago I was asked to be team leader at my current school, which meant by the end of the year there were 11 other teachers in my team.  I was constantly having to talk to parents, and talk in front of assemblies etc. Then this year I’m not teaching in a class but I have a number of roles which means I’m always busy.  I don’t have time or energy to worry about speaking in front of people so I just get up there and do it.  When I’m up there in front of everyone, I never see any one, I don’t see faces, I’m not looking at anything it’s just a blur.

Our 5 year old son is a born entertain, he loves being the centre of attention.  He will walk into a room of people he doesn’t even know and say “I’m here!”.  During our school assemblies, Will will always put his hand up to go up the front and sing and dance to any songs that are being sung even if he doesn’t know the words!  This year he performed in a concert which his music teacher organised for all her students.  He had 2 pieces, one was singing a song and the other was playing a piece of music on a keyboard.  He loved it, he loved the applause and for him being infront of people is a natural thing.

Bella and Will off to concert

(Will and Bella – ready to perform at a concert)

Our 7 year old daughter takes after myself but for the past 2 years since she started school she has seen me speak infront of large audiences, so to her it is just the norm.  Last year she had a lead role in a production, and she has had 2 concerts which she has performed in.  Ever time Bella is on centre stage I’m more nervous than she is!  My heart pounds and I feel sick.  When she had performed a musical piece in a concert this year I asked her if she was nervous.  She said she was.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked her.  But when it was her turn to play her piece she just walked straight up to the front and performed.  When her Da (grandad) passed away last year after a 2 year battle with motor neuron disease she was was in the same room when the family were talking to the man who was going to be running the service.  He asked my mother-in-law if there would be any children who would be speaking at the funeral, and at that stage Ali said there wouldn’t be.  Later on that night Bella went into her room and came out a little later holding a piece of paper.  She asked John (my husband) if she could say something at Da’s funeral.  John and I were both surprised but we said she could if she wanted to.  She then read us both what she had written by herself, without any prompting “This is about someone who past away Bill Tevendale.  He was a great Grandad to me and Will.  He past away when he came back from hospital.  I wish he was still here but my mum told me to pretend that he was around me.”  At the funeral there were more than 300 people who came to pay their respects, I got up and struggled through my speech but as a 6 years old Bella didn’t waiver.  She stood infront of a packed service and spoke clearly. 

For me, I’m not someone who is out going, or likes being the centre of attention, I like the silence but my work role means I have to speak infront of audiences.  I use to dread it, but after a while it just became the norm.   If you dislike speaking in public find something that will get you through.  It maybe that you take something little up for you to fidget with to take your mind off the speech, or you might visualise yourself talking to a bunch of clowns!  Do what works for you or just fake it to you make it!


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