Justin Selig

Thoughts on the Fear of Public Speaking

A few years ago in college…

I developed an obsession with public speaking. More than a passion, speaking in front of others grew to become something of an addiction, a fixation. On my free time, I downloaded articles about crafting stories and spent nights watching TED talks about body language. I studied the art of making slide decks, poured over the features of PowerPoint, and bought myself a personal slide clicker.

Wanting to put knowledge into practice, I took a number of acting and oral communications courses. Outside of classes, I considered joining Speech & Debate, but decided rather to start a public speaking club with a more open format. There at the Cornell Public Speaking Club, I began coaching other engineering students in the art of public speaking.

Why do all of this?

Sitting somewhere on a hard-disk in my old apartment is a video of 19-year-old Justin getting up in front of a group of students and stammering his way through an impromptu talk before a group of 30-40 people. He then shamefully returns to his seat with eyes fixed on the hardwood floor. Absolute embarrassment.

I’ll return to this in a bit. But first, another story:

Over the recent holiday, I was asked by a friend, “what’s your passion?”

Surprisingly, it took me more than an instant to respond. My response began as a classic elevator pitch:

“I am passionate about embedded systems, artificial intelligence, IoT devices, and…”

I stopped, recalling that it wasn’t an interview. Moments of authentic introspection are hard to come by nowadays.

“I really enjoy public speaking.”

Whenever I say this, there’s usually a followup question about my knowledge of Toastmasters or some mutual acknowledgement of the importance of being a good presenter. It’s difficult to convey to people that public speaking is something I actually enjoy rather than tolerate for the sake of professional development. Understandable, since most of the adult population would rather die than speak in front of an audience.

My friend continues with an honest remark:

“Oh, I want to get better at public speaking but I struggle too much with anxiety.”

“Well… me too.”

A “COZE” lifestyle

My friend Daniel put a name to the activities I pursue. He ironically called it “COZE” (pronounced coe-zee) for “COmfort-Zone Expansion”. Funnily enough, comfort-zone expansion is one of the core values I’ve labelled for myself. This seems to tie in with being an engineer. Perhaps it’s the result of an engineering education, but if I see a problem in my life, I need to fix it. Annihilate it in the most extreme way possible.

Every problem is solvable

I remember seeing a formal proof somewhere about how even the biggest problems you can think of have solutions so long as enough energy and time are applied. This is trivially true. But, for practical purposes, every human problem can be broken down into a series of smaller solvable problems. The process of deconstructing problems into smaller solvable pieces is what one might call the engineering process.

For solving my anxiety of public speaking, this came in the form of exposure. Exposure is a term that therapists use to describe the process of safely and progressively exposing oneself to an object of cause for phobia. This is often utilized in treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for social anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorders.

Admittedly, I took a rather aggressive approach to exposure. Exposure became an obsession became a minor college career. With the luxury of hindsight, I can now systematize this process into four major steps:

  1. Planning
  2. Exposure
  3. Reflection
  4. Repetition

Each of these steps can be further broken down into actionable goals supported by methods and tools which I will summarize in a future post. But what I can share now is the following…

Public Speaking Isn’t About Quelling all Anxiety…

It’s about managing anxiety to the point where you can effectively achieve your goal. Much like programming, public speaking is a tool which we can harness to achieve a desired end - persuasion, entertainment, laughter, eliciting emotions, conveying information - and so on.

If you can achieve your goal while violating all the rules of Toastmasters, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter how many “umms” or “uhhs” you say. If you want to insert a nail into a wall with a hammer, it’s ineffective to grip the hammer close to its head. But if your goal isn’t to become a master hammer’er, it doesn’t matter where you hold the hammer. So long as you impact the nail with enough force in the right direction, it gets the job done. Mastery of a tool is not required for functional correctness.

Thanks for reading. If you find this useful, please send me a note.


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