I was afraid of public speaking since my first day of kindergarten. My mom walked with me to school that day. It was a beautiful morning. Quiet. So peaceful. Just me and my mom.
I had never been to preschool or anything like school, so I didn't know what to expect, and I hadn't thought much about it. But when we got there, the door was at the front of the class, and everyone was there already. I must have been about five minutes late.
As soon as I saw all those kids turn to look at me, I froze. I didn't want to go in. My mom gave me a little nudge from behind. "It's okay, honey," she said, "go on in and take a seat."
I grabbed the sides of the door and tried to get back out. The teacher came over and tried to pull me in. My mom was outside trying to nudge me in, but I was having none of this. I wanted to get away. I started yelling at them and hanging onto the sides of the door as if my life depended on it. Finally they got me inside. I felt so embarrassed I'd made a scene, and that I was forced to acquiesce. From that moment on, I didn't ever want to be in front of a class again.
Another time I was in my first judo competition. My dad and my brother were there. I must have been in third grade at the time. I went out for my first match, and my opponent threw me on the ground in about a half a second and it was over. I was eliminated from the tournament. That was it. I felt humiliated in front of all those people.
And one more: When I was in the fourth grade, a teacher tried to make me get in front of the class to recite a poem. Again, it was a humiliating experience.
So needless to say, when it came time years later to start speaking to groups to promote my book, I had a kind of ancient dread of doing anything in front of a group. I looked forward to an upcoming speech like someone who would hang at dawn. Dread. Serious dread. And dread is a lousy mood that doesn't improve performance at all.
But I cured the dread. The first stage of the cure occurred in a conversation with Klassy (my wife and business partner). I was telling her how much I was dreading the speech I had scheduled the following week. I was silent for a minute. I went through each phase of the speech in my head: Driving there, getting set up, talking for twenty minutes about something I know a lot about. I realized that, in spite of the feeling of dread, there was nothing actually difficult about this task. Nothing at all. I've done a lot of difficult things, and this was easy. The only thing that was hard about it was the dread itself. And somehow the realization that the whole thing was really easy lifted the dread. I said, "It's going to be easy."
Immediately I felt light.
Whenever the dread came back, I did the same thing, and I recommend it to you: Don't just tell yourself "this is easy." Go through the event, step by step, judging each step by how difficult it really will be. How much of a strain will it be? How much effort will it require? How much skill will it take? And then when you realize really how easy it will be, then say to yourself, "This is going to be easy."
This filters out everything but what you're mentally adding. The dread is something I mentally added to the situation, rather than residing in the situation itself.
Did you know shyness can completely disappear when someone is hypnotized if all the hypnotist does is put a block on the person's memory of his own past? In other words, without mentioning shyness or confidence — without even uttering the words — all the hypnotist needs to do is temporarily erase past memories. Shyness vanishes. With no memory of embarrassing moments, what is there to fear?
It is the anticipation of the pain that is actually the painful part. In a study by British and Canadian researchers, they found what they call "dread zones" in the brain. These zones don't actually process the pain themselves. They are in communication with the parts of the brain that deal with the experience.
In the experiment, the researchers hooked volunteers to a device that could deliver both painful and pleasant sensations. In front of the volunteers were two lights. When the blue light came on, there was a warm, pleasant sensation. Every thirty seconds, the red light would start flashing. After seven seconds of flashing red light, the volunteers experienced about eight seconds of a painfully hot sensation.
Meanwhile, they had the volunteers hooked up to some of the most powerful MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) equipment in the world. As the experience was repeated, the volunteers' "dread zones" became more and more active. The zones were communicating to the parts of the brain that actually experience the pain. And the volunteers experienced more and more pain even though the actual amount of heat they received remained the same. Their anticipation of the pain made the experience more painful.
When I realized speaking would be easy, somehow it freed me up to really think about how I'd like to do the talk. I started thinking about what I wanted to do rather than what I thought they wanted me to do or expected me to do. And that changed everything. I totally redesigned my speech. I talked about what I really wanted to talk about, what I really thought they ought to know, and I told stories and illustrated my points the way I would enjoy, rather than trying to please the audience.
Of course, if it was enjoyable to me, it would likely be enjoyable to them, but I concerned myself with doing it the way I would enjoy. This small change made a big difference. I actually began looking forward to my speeches.
When you dread something, look carefully until you really see how easy it will be. And then wrack your brain trying to figure out how you can do it in the way that would be most enjoyable to you. Easy and fun will get it done.
Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.