If you had told me four years ago that I would kind of, sort of, like public speaking, I would have laughed and said "No."
Four years ago, I was terrified by the prospect of public speaking. I wasn't the type to freeze on stage. But I was the type to read directly off my cue cards. Or forget my next line and silently wait for my brain to catch up with the words I had previously said. I avoided presenting as much as possible in primary school. Everyone around me always seems so confident when I never was, and it made me want to curl into a corner off stage, on occasion. If I could get out of doing a two-minute speech by writing an essay, you could bet I'd be the one kid writing the essay.
However, in my first year of high school, I began to learn that public speaking is a really important skill to have. Whether it be at a school open house, a hackathon pitch or leading kids through a workshop, public speaking was a necessary skill. Time after time I would run into these situations where I stood with all eyes on me. I stuttered. I rushed. I rambled. As a self-assessment, I was pretty awful at presenting.
And that's when I decided to accept the fact that I would have to be (at the very least) decent at public speaking. It was inevitable that unless I tried to be better, I never would be. Stuttering, rushing and rambling a thousand times was not going to make me a better speaker. As soon as the realization sunk in, I started making a plan. I was not the type of person to prepare speeches as a hobby and present in front of a mirror, so I knew I needed some sort of push. A situation where I had to present and couldn’t chicken out.
The opportunity presented itself when our school made a meeting announcement for a business case competition called DECA. Although I was enrolled in the International Business and Technology program, I was more into the technology side rather than the business side. Truth be told, I had never been interested in business. But DECA seemed like the perfect opportunity. I would just be one of the dozens who was trying to improve.
I teamed up with a partner, and we decided to tackle the written category. This meant that we would be writing a business report, then presenting at provincials. We would have plenty of time to work on the project and presentation. Months in fact, which I thought would be more than enough to get comfortable with the topic.
And then fate decided that I would not get the easy route into the presenting world. We were reassigned to the oral role. Where we would have 30 minutes to analyze the case and 15 minutes to present. I remember choking on air when I heard the conditions of the competition. 30 minutes to prepare a 15-minute presentation? It took me weeks to prepare a five-minute speech in eight grade. How on earth would we even survive?
Luckily, my partner had done DECA for the previous year, and thanks to the help of our school's DECA chapter, we confidently prepared for the case. Our first few runs were shaky, but gradually, I got the hang of it.
Come competition day, and we were confronted with a case that had words we didn't even understand. We were nervous. We guessed our way around the concepts we didn't know. I honestly thought we would flop. We presented, then came out of the room relieved. We bought some pizza and went to the awards ceremony.
And then we won a top 10 presentation ribbon at regionals.
We were both flabbergasted as they called our names to the stage, and truth be told, I hadn't even been listening to the names called. It wasn’t an unheard of achievement; dozens of competitors were awarded this ribbon, and others, throughout the competition. However, the ribbon wasn’t the accomplishment that stuck with me. What stuck was the overall confidence I got from having the practice pay off.
Taking the first step towards unfamiliar territory is always the hardest. But that first push started something for me. I got better at hackathon pitches, better at open house presentations and better at presenting at robotics workshops. With each presentation, I felt myself feel more and more comfortable...
Comfortable to the point where I decided to apply to be a speaker a STEAM conference of around 40 attendees. I felt extremely nervous while typing the application, the question of
“If I even get accepted, will I be able to do it?”
I did get accepted, and the question followed me the days leading up to the conference, even to the day of the conference. I spoke with the other speakers before the event started, and they were all extremely nice, and confident. As the third presenter, I watched as three other speakers shared their STEAM stories. I was definitely inspired by their presentations, as they had explored fields of STEAM that I previously hadn’t delved into.
Then it was my turn. I got up to the front of the room, watched as my presentation got hooked up to the screen, and began speaking.
Surprisingly, it went well. I found it extremely easy to talk about my life since, after all, no one knew it better than I did. I felt confident, and my 15-minute presentation seemed to only last five minutes for me.
At the end of my presentation, as I sat back in my seat to listen to the next presenter, I could finally answer my pestering questions.
“Yes. I did do it”
I don’t think I’ll ever be the best presenter in the world. Sometimes, I still speak too fast, or I’ll lose train of thought. But over time, I’ve learned to recover from these slips, and I know one day, with enough practice, I won’t need to worry about these things. I’m happy with how far I’ve come since the start of this experience, and I can’t wait to see where public speaking brings me next.
The first step is always the hardest. I think this is true, no matter what the case. First time riding a bike, the first resume submitted, the first day on the job… honestly, the first time writing a published blog post about my experiences.
Only compare yourself to you. You’re only competing against your past self, not anyone else. Spending time wondering why you aren’t more like X will only be wasting your time when you could be improving to be better than you were yesterday. Cheesy as it sounds, you are you, there is only one of you, therefore you are uniquely talented :)
Drinking water before speaking helps. I didn’t really mention this in the post, but seriously, water helps if you’re going to speaking for a while. Stay hydrated!
-- Written by Hannah Guo