This post tells my personal experience learning how to speak in public with the “trial by fire” method. It is my inspiration for creating Virtual Orator. It is the kind of experience I hope you can avoid.
a bit about me
Like the majority of people I had a fear of public speaking; actually, I had a significant fear of public speaking. I didn’t want to be called on in class. Having to get up in front of class was a nightmare. I avoided all public speaking with every ounce of my energy.
I am an introvert. I am a nerd. School was not a socially good time for me. I was socially insecure. I am a computer scientist and hold an advanced university degree.
Why have I listed this? Each is typically associated with social issues effecting public speaking. I want you to understand that even if the cards are stacked against you, you can learn to public speak. Don’t let yourself be defined by such labels and work hard at it, it can be done.
Although my personal journey is described here, many if not most people who have overcome fear to become proficient public speakers have similar stories. It usually involves being forced to present for work instead of my academic context, but the experience will be similar.
My trial by fire journey
My first ‘trial by fire’ public speaking experience was in graduate school. I had to teach a class for my advisor, who was gone to a conference. I probably could have fought against it as I always had, but I knew some day I would have to do public speaking; I was also tired of missing opportunities because of my social insecurity.
Why do I call it a trial by fire? I was woefully insecure and had zero public speaking skills; not a good mixture. There were also a number of logistical factors that made everything worse.
- I was teaching a graduate level course. I had taught myself, but had no formal education on the topic. I had never actually taken a course on the subject. I didn’t really consider myself an expert.
- I had no guidance from my Professor on what to present, not even a specific topic.
- I wasn’t familiar with slide presentations at the time; they were somewhat new in academia at the time. The topic was graphical in nature and, frankly, I wanted the crutch/diversion, so I used it.
Each of these creates sub-optimal conditions for any presentation, let alone your first one. Generally the more you feel you are an expert on the topic, the more comfortably you can speak. I didn’t feel the expert, but I was definitely in a position where it was needed. This is an important tip: if you can, always speak about things you know well and are passionate about.
If those weren’t enough, there was plenty of social stakes involved in my experience. Of course, my insecurities blew these even more out of proportion.
- Two professors were sitting in on the course. I was taking a course from one that semester,
- several of my colleagues and friends from our lab were taking the course,
- my lab and study partner from another course was in the class, and
- the girl I had a crush on was in the class.
Unless you are proactive and get to choose when and where your first speeches are, you will almost always end up colleagues, bosses, potential bosses, etc in the crowd.
I made things even harder on myself. I didn’t practice the presentation at all beforehand. Uncharacteristically for me at the time, I did start creating my presentation as soon as I got the assignment. It wasn’t ready though until the night before.
To summarize: The only things I did right where: recognizing I would have to start speaking sometime and started creating the presentation early. Everything else was poorly done.
The only things I remember from that 50 minutes are the stress responses: sweat, horrible cotton mouth (I could barely speak at one point and had no water), quivering voice, and fears about everyone being aware of all of that.
I left with the feeling I had just ruined my life. I didn’t want to show my face at work or school. I got neither complaints nor positive feedback. The only positive I remember feeling was being happy because no-one walked out or fell asleep, which is what I had imagined.
Were my social fears founded? I didn’t loose any friends; other students actually seemed to have some respect for me. My partner didn’t abandon me. I passed the class I was taking. I even managed to date the girl later. Must not have been as bad as I thought it was.
Trial by Fire as a learning method
I taught that class 6 times that semester. I did learn how to present via those trials by fire, but trial by fire as a learning method only works if we learn from the experience. It’s difficult, but you have to reflect on your experience. This goes against our nature for many of us, preferring to forget it completely.
I continued learning via the trial by fire method for a long time, just finding bigger fires each time. After those classes came a small conference presentation. Then bigger conferences. Then a conference presentation held in a foreign language. Those trials were never fun, but every time things got easier, and situations that caused fear before started becoming ‘normal’.
The fear of public speaking still effects me at times. If I put an undue amount of social importance on a speech, I’ll start getting dry mouth symptoms. I still am socially insecure at times. However, I do know how to deal with these things today and how to prepare to get my best speech. Am I a world class public speaker? No. Do I do OK? I think so.
Not only am I a slow learner, for using the trial by fire method, I have to admit that the above story isn’t actually my initial trial by fire. I actually gave a presentation at the end of my bachelor’s degree, and there was indeed fire involved.
I blanked the entire experience from my memory. Even the next day I didn’t remember it. The only saving factor was we were all engineering students, and we were all horrible. We got a video tape of it afterward. I ritually burned that tape so I would never have to relive that experience. Did I learn anything? No, because I refused to reflect on the experience. Instead, I only deepened my fear.
An ironic alternative to Trials by Fire
In the same year that I was teaching those courses, my first trails by fire, the first research using VR for public speaking came out. I remember thinking that it would be great to have. At the time, the technology involved was difficult, so I couldn’t just build it and I just continued with my trials by fire.
When the advent of affordable consumer VR came about, I saw an opportunity to provide of others what I didn’t have: Trial by VR instead of trial by fire.
Dr. Blom is a long time researcher in the VR field. He is the founder of Virtual Human Technologies, which applies VR and avatar technologies to human problems and helping better understand people. Virtual Orator exists largely because Dr. Blom wishes he had had such a tool instead of the 'trail by fire' he went through learning to speak in public.