For most people, the fear of public speaking is greater than the fear of death.
For a long time, I had a crippling fear of speaking in front of people. My mouth would dry up, my hands would go clammy and I would start stuttering uncontrollably. It’s not that I didn’t know what to say, rather that I felt I couldn't get the words out in a way that made sense. I was terrified that people were judging me for being incoherent.
The trouble was that the more I tried, the more I seemed to fail, until I was retreating further and further into my shell. My problem was not with the material I was presenting or my knowledge of a particular topic, but rather its delivery in front of an audience. In a career where the ability to speak up in front of people was critical, this fear was becoming an affliction. I knew that unless I did something about it, my fear would impact my entire experience of life.
I decided to confront this problem by becoming a stand-up comic. I reasoned that I would be so scared, so terrified, that I wouldn't have any more fear left. In the event that I ever felt afraid again, I would use this experience as a reference point to prove to myself beyond all doubt that I was more capable than I thought.
I trained with 15 other aspiring comics for eight hours every Saturday for three months. This was on top of my preparations for 10 marathons in 10 months and alongside my work commitments as a consultant at EY. Within three months, I performed live comedy in front of more than 100 members of the general public, then significant numbers of my own colleagues at EY. I even went on to do a spot at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where my largest audience consisted of over 250 people.
The ability to “read” an audience, engage and then respond appropriately is scary enough, but trying to make them laugh based on some loose understanding of what might be funny is truly terrifying. Confronting my fear of public speaking in this way has had a profound impact on me, both personally and professionally. I have never felt so scared and then invincible within such a short space of time!
This experiment taught me that strange things happen when you confront your fears - in almost all cases, the closer you get to dealing with them, the more they seem to shrink.