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Getting Over Public Speaking Anxiety (in a Pandemic...)

Updated: Jul 31, 2021

Unprecedented circumstances, virtual environment, Zoom university - these phrases have certainly defined 2020. While a pandemic continues to loom over most of the world, we've all had to adjust to the reality of remote work - a reality that is likely to stick around.

So, I am here to tell you that this is precisely the time to perfect your public speaking skills. Think about it, there are so many advantages to "presenting" from the comfort of your own home - and yep, that comfort is one of those pros. You can throw on your favorite pajama bottoms, split your screen to refer to your notes while you're speaking, and forego those dreaded empty stares from the audience thanks to the beauty of blank participant screens. Just like that you've eliminated the most common stressors of public speaking: an unfamiliar/uncomfortable setting, the fear of forgetting your speech, and receiving unfavorable audience reactions.

Yes, some setbacks still remain. Those awkward silences we know all too well can't be fully eliminated, but let's be grateful for what we do have: the ability to practice communication skills in a relatively low-consequence setting.

In 2020, I entered my second year of college and took on more leadership roles both on- and off-campus. Instead of meeting with my team at a secluded table on the second floor of BSTIC (IVC folks would know) as I had envisioned, I unknowingly signed up for a schedule full of Zoom calls. Along with a new meeting format, a team of individuals I had never met in person, and a significantly heavier workload, I needed to quickly adapt to my new set of responsibilities.

Rather than sitting back and watching someone squirm as they nervously stare into the great beyond of participant names, I now had to be the one doing all of the squirming. At least I was in the beginning. Naturally, it was intimidating to speak to a group of people, half of whom I hadn’t seen before, and try to motivate them to pursue a common goal. However, constant practice in daily Zoom calls was key to tackling my speech anxiety.

By creating agendas and leading weekly meetings of 5, 10, 20+ participants on a consistent basis in 2020 and 2021, I have regularly put my public speaking skills to use. I always make notes for myself in a separate document that I have on the side of my screen to stay on track. Before every meeting, I take a deep breath and start the call.

Making small talk with those who come to the meeting early also helps calm my nerves and allows me to establish a connection with my audience, even if it's a simple “this finals week is pretty insane, am I right?” When hosting a panel with an alumnus of the University of Virginia who joined Bain & Co. as a Consultant, I started by asking him about the recruitment process and preparing for those notoriously difficult case interviews. We also bonded over our extra-long winter breaks! After all of the attendees trickled in, I had already put the panelist and myself as the host at ease.

To stop myself from perpetually wearing metaphorical pajama pants, I began taking incremental steps to “put myself out there” as I became comfortable speaking in smaller teams. When our speaker for an event at Business Leaders Society fell through, I volunteered to host a graphic design workshop for an audience of 40+ members (keep in mind – all of my graphic design experience up to this point consisted solely of the social media designs I made for my clubs). I've also pushed myself to attend large-scale networking events with professionals in the Accounting and Finance industries and speak up at them (yes, I’ve snuck in to quite a few “Meet the Firms” events at UCI and CSUF – oops!). By preparing a polished list of questions (doing your due diligence about the companies is critical) and using my unusual story as a community college student that isn’t even supposed to be there as leverage, I stood out in many recruiters’ minds as a motivated and attentive candidate.

To sum it up, here are my strategies for tackling public speaking in any environment:

  • Organize your thoughts in advance – preparing well is key!

  • Take a few deep breaths before you start - simple, but it helps slow down that heart rate and blood pressure of yours.

  • Show up slightly early to the meeting - take some time to get situated and ensure that your camera and microphone are working (if on Zoom).

  • Establish a connection with your audience through an engaging story or example – draw your audience in to make them care about the problem you're trying to solve.

  • Follow your plan - whether it be an agenda, presentation, or a simple list of bullet points, keep this near you to stay structured in your speech. Split-screen mode is your best friend in this case - use Win + Left or Right Arrow to do this instantaneously!

  • Remember why you're doing this – by challenging yourself and regularly giving speeches, you will be one step closer to becoming a highly effective oral communicator.

So, don't let all of this physical remoteness deter you from getting over that speech anxiety hump. Make Zoom your public speaking training ground!

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