I met an M.I.T. professor who has the prescription for performance fear

I walked through the Student Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts a few hours before I was scheduled to speak.

There were hundreds of students passing through, coming in and out of classrooms, grabbing a bite to eat at some of the campus restaurants, but it remained almost creepily quiet.

There was little socializing, almost a polar opposite environment to my college experience at the University of Florida where you walk into the student center and immediately feel the extroversion crawling all over your arm. Socializing was the ideal, which is why if you walked into our student center on a weekday, you could hear 1,000 voices slowing coming to a crescendo as you neared the cafeteria. But here in Cambridge, it was quiet. There was a level of respect in the air that was palpable.

I passed through the Student Center and quickly found myself in a new building. Most of the buildings on it's campus are connected, so you can to almost any building without having to step foot outside into the frigid cold, which is nice, but you can also get lost very easily if you don’t know where you’re going.

I heard some chatter coming from a classroom down the hall so I went to check it out. I approached and noticed an older grey-haired professor dressed in a full, three piece suit who bore a striking resemblance to the main character in the Pixar movie, Up.

He was offering bowtie-tying lessons to students, which seemed rather appropriate.

I introduced myself and confessed that my girlfriend had just bought me a bowtie for Christmas and that I had watched approximately 700 Youtube tutorials to try and figure out how to tie one for our New Year's party but I failed miserably each time.

He reached into a box and grabbed a tie for me to practice with. I fumbled. I looped. I swooped. I failed.

To ease my embarrassment, I tried to distract him with small talk. “What do you do here?” I asked. He told me he was a professor. 

I told him I'm a public speaking coach for introverts. “Tough job,” he said. He told me he’s never been shy about speaking in public.  

I asked him about it. “Has it always come naturally to you?”

“The one story I’ll tell you is about when I first joined the debate club in high school. Our first big debate was approaching and I worked my butt off. I had memorized my speech, I knew exactly how I wanted to say it, it was going to be glorious.”

He continued, “I got on stage that night with hundreds of people in the audience, including my best friends, family, and when I went to say my first two rehearsed lines… I froze up. I couldn’t remember a word.”

He paused.

“I walked off the stage and that was it. That was the last time I remember being afraid on stage.”

That’s not right. I must have misunderstood. He had a traumatic experience and that’s when he stopped fearing public speaking?

“You do realize that this is where most people begin to fear public speaking more than death, right?” My tone was condescending.

“I was embarrassed for a while,” he said. “But the other side of the story was, I had a lot of things going for me. I had a great girlfriend, was President of student council, and was doing well in school. I was on the football team too. I could afford to mess up and still be okay.”

I couldn’t help but think about how remarkably different this conversation was from the one I normally have with people about public speaking. Which is usually just I’m scared shitless because I’ve had a bad experience, I’m afraid it will happen again, what should I do?...

**

There’s a concept preached religiously in finance, that the M.I.T. professor understood, called diversifying.

Diversifying is about spreading out risk.

Basically, if we're too heavily invested in one thing (like one stock… or only stocks...or say the outcome of a single performance) we need to invest into other things (like gold, or bonds, or cash) so if something goes wrong with that one stock, we’re not screwed.

Okay. Forget about finance now and think about your fear of public speaking. If we’re too invested in a single outcome (like impressing an audience or it’s evil cousin, not failing and looking stupid), the only way to correct this cycle is to: invest excessively in other areas of your life.

In other words, stop only caring about the outcome of one event and do other things. Invest in other areas of your life and spread out the risk so that if you do fail miserably, whether during a work presentation, during a job interview, etc. the blow isn’t so devastating.

Give me some examples. Okay.

Try weight lifting and getting into shape. Build your social circle and meet new friends. Learn new skills: like a new language, acting, painting, writing, or carpentry.  Take an improv or acting class. Join a church group. Join a book club. Join a boozy book club (my friend just started one of these and they’re great). Join a networking group in your industry. Learn to cook. Cook for your family once a week. Take martial arts. Do yoga. Become a yogi. Write a book. Teach a free class at a local university. Volunteer to work at a charity once a week for an hour. Start running. Start swimming. Travel to a few places close by. Move to China.

But isn’t the only way to get better at public speaking through practice? No. It’s one way. But maybe your technical speaking skills or charisma or storytelling isn’t the issue.

Maybe you care too much. Maybe that’s the problem. So invest somewhere else. Actually not just somewhere else, but everywhere else.

So when you do fail, because you will, you’ve got other things to lean on.