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The four steps I took to overcome my fear of public speaking and embrace vulnerability

TEDx talk
Laura Dixon
Face your fears.
By Khe Hy
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There are a lot of TED Talks I love—from Brené Brown’s “Power of Vulnerability” to Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” to Susan Cain’s “The Power of Introverts.” I never expected to give one myself. But on the last weekend of October, I delivered my talk “From Hustle to Wholeness” at the TEDxCoventGardenWomen in London.

It’s hard to pinpoint the range of emotions I experienced throughout the process—it felt like a combination of attending a close friend’s wedding, completing a tough term paper, and going through an intense group therapy session. I don’t know when, or if, I’ll give a talk like that again. But I did come away from the experience with a new perspective on what it means to combine authentic vulnerability with the power of narrative. Here’s what I learned about what it takes to tell a good story.

1) Force yourself out of your comfort zone

When Lynn Tabbara, the curator for TedXCGW, asked me to be a speaker, initially I demurred. I knew I wanted to give a TEDx talk eventually, but having only recently left the finance industry, I was still new to being an entrepreneur. TED’s motto is “ideas worth spreading,” and I told Lynn that while I had many small ideas, I didn’t have a big one yet.

I also had another big reason for shying away from the invitation. Yes, I had spoken at conferences and panels in the past—but mostly as a hedge-fund investor. The subject matter had been dry, I could lean heavily on my PowerPoint slides, and most of the audience was distracted by their Blackberries anyway.

I’d never had a huge audience or told a deeply personal story that exposed my fears and insecurities and ambitions. As Tim Urban points out in his TED post-mortem, people are more scared of public speaking than death. And I, for one, am already really scared of death.

But over the next five months, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to get up on that stage. Selfishly, I was excited to have a new “digital asset” in my portfolio (particularly one in which I’d be pontificating on that iconic red carpet). But more importantly, in my post-finance career, whether it was as a blogger or writer at Quartz, I knew that my ideas resonated most deeply when I made myself most vulnerable. And I wanted to learn to lean into my fears. So I formally accepted in August.

2) Invest time in learning fundamental storytelling techniques

One of the biggest things I learned during the process was the unique skill of storytelling. My TEDx coach had encouraged me to use the “hero’s journey” as a narrative structure, as explained by author Joseph Campbell in the book Man with 10,000 Faces.

In essence, the hero’s journey involves the protagonist leaving their familiar world behind and embarking on a quest. Along the way, the protagonist faces a slew of obstacles that they overcome while gaining new wisdom. Ultimately, the hero brings their newly acquired wisdom back to their old world.

Many of our most beloved stories, from The Odyssey and Hamlet to Finding Nemo and The Matrix, can be mapped to this structure. This was a powerful lesson, and it reminded me that many of the most successful and influential people I know, irrespective of industry, are fantastic storytellers.

Once my script was fairly nailed down, I spent the remaining couple of weeks working on memorizing it and learning how to tell the story out loud. I rehearsed it for my wife in our living room, recorded myself with the Quicktime app on my Macbook, and asked friends if they would be willing to suffer the ragged edges of my performance.

This helped me realize that trying to memorize the talk verbatim was actually a disadvantage. Rote memorization meant that I lacked the flexibility to lean in to the emotion of the content. Conversely, I found that speaking on a topic I was passionate about—something I already thought about incessantly—gave me a strong buffer against mistakes. I experimented with pregnant pauses, catchphrases, building suspense, and conveying emotions ranging from anxiety to determination to humility. It really felt like I was taking an acting class.

3) Focus on other people—not on yourself

Saturday was the big day. I was in my Uber at 7 am heading to the conference venue, blasting Kanye’s “Ultralight Beat” and very much feeling like the protagonist of a Beats commercial. The event was held at Vue Cinemas in Leicester Square. There would be 415 guests in attendance.

I met most of my fellow speakers for the first time. The breadth of backgrounds was incredible: The youngest was 21, the oldest in their forties. They were executives, academics, writers, entrepreneurs, and students. Most were not seasoned speakers. There was a healthy dose of nerves across the collective group.

I’ve had the privilege of giving two best-man speeches. In each case, I couldn’t really relax at the wedding until those speeches were done. My TEDx talk was at 5:30 pm; I was the sixteenth speaker out of eighteen. That gave me a good six and a half hours to get worked up about my presentation.

But my mindset changed once the talks began. The other speakers were too inspiring for me to worry about what could go wrong in my talk. They were flawless—and deeply personal.

Instantly, the camaraderie amongst the speakers kicked in. Each of us understood exactly what the others were feeling. A slight hand on the shoulder before a speaker went onstage meant, “It’s going to be OK.” The hugs when the speaker walked into the wings were a celebration. This took me out of my self-absorbed mode; I was too busy listening to what everyone else had to say. We were all rooting for each other. The magic of the TEDx event was that it wasn’t about me. It was about us: the speakers, organizers, and the audience.

4) Know that no matter what happens, you’ll never regret it

I got mic’d up at 5 pm in the green room. Shortly afterward, I walked out in front of those big red foam TEDx letters and began my talk. The speech focused on how fear had fueled my singular focus on professional achievements during my years in finance, and how learning to lean into fear had ultimately led me to identify my true calling as an entrepreneur focused on helping others.

Beginning a big project is always the hardest part for me, and that stayed true on game day. In fact, I forgot my fourth line, pausing for what felt like 30 seconds. (In reality, it was probably more like five.) But I regained my composure and delivered what felt like the best talk of my life.

Afterward, I felt elated, relieved, and proud. I cried—both out of relief, and because of the deeply personal message that I had just shared. Sharing all that in front of a room full of strangers was an uncomfortable feeling. The last time I felt that level of discomfort was when I left my job in 2015, but the awkwardness I felt was a sign that I was challenging myself and learning new skills while also finding joy in the process.

The upshot

It’s been a few weeks since I gave the talk, and I am still basking in the glow. All the speakers are emailing and tweeting at each other with collective pride. With some distance from the event (both emotionally and geographically) I’m able to reflect upon what really made it so special.

One thing, I believe, is the fact that each speaker had found a story that would resonate across diverse audiences. We came from different countries, with different backgrounds, socio-economic circumstances and ages. Yet in every single story, I saw a piece of myself.

I saw my own self-judgment in the poet Najwa Zebian’s verse “these mountains that you are carrying, you were only supposed to climb.” I felt the excitement in 21-year-old engineering student Daniela Rossade’s assertion that “children are natural engineers,” connecting her words with the creativity and inquisitiveness of my two-year-old.

I realized the magnitude of my male privilege as Leigh Caldwell, a cognitive economist, presented a Sim City-like simulation of an economic system, laden with information about the ways in which our unconscious bias directly contributes to the gender-wage gap. I could continue for all 17 other speakers. We were all so different, but yet we found ourselves in each other’s stories.

As a 37-year-old, I don’t often encounter opportunities to have these kinds of shared experiences. But the TEDx event made me realize that I want to seek out more group activities with a shared struggle and common purpose. I’m eager to find more ways to bond with others over common goals, whether it’s through a men’s circle or volunteering in a community I haven’t engaged with before.

I’m also keen to discover more ways to keep stepping out of my creative comfort zone. As I get older, I seem to gravitate towards routine and predictability. But doing this exposed me to a new set of challenges and engaged a completely different part of my brain. I want to practice being safely vulnerable, perhaps via standup comedy or an acting class, or even dancing. The prerequisite would be some kind of culmination in a performance; not for the attention, but for that healthy dose of nerves. And finally, I want to be someone who shares authentically with people—and seeks out others who do the same.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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