Overcoming Public Speaking Fear
Want to learn how to reduce public speaking fear? This is the story of how a Shy, Trailer Park Kid Became a World Class Speaker And How You Can Too! Doug Staneart is the President and CEO of The Leaders Institute ® and Creator of the Fearless Presentations ® Public Speaking Training Programs. He has dedicated his life to helping others overcome public speaking fear. Below is my inspirational story of triumph over public speaking fear that allowed me to create one of the most successful training companies in the world!
I overcame being an incredibly shy kid who got beat up and bullied in grade school to become an NCAA football player.
My first formal presentation in the business world was such a failure that it cost me my first career, but that failure allowed me to help over 100,000 people conquer the same challenge. In fact, each of these obstacles taught me truths about life that have allowed me to create one of the most successful training companies in the world.
Most “About Us” pages are just about the accomplishments of a company, but I want you to know that if I can have so many things stacked against me and still become a highly successful professional speaker, ANYONE can do this. I hope that my story can help you overcome your challenges as well!
You can overcome public speaking fear too!
How a Shy, Introverted Weakling Played NCAA Football (and Survived)
I grew up in Palarm, Arkansas. I have never been able to find an accurate population number for Palarm, but it was definitely more than 20 people (but not much more). My family lived in a trailer home until I was about five when my mom and dad bought a two-room shack that was falling to pieces. That same year, my dad started a one-man construction business. He was a house-flipper before house-flipping was cool. Unlike what you see on reality TV shows today, though, house-flipping in rural Arkansas wasn’t a wealth building activity.
Dad would basically buy a condemned home in the ghetto of downtown Little Rock, spend six-months to a year remodeling the house, and then, hopefully, sell the house for a profit. Today, I realize that the mistake that my dad made was taking too much time on projects. He was such a skilled carpenter, that he could do all the work himself. However, that process took about a year to complete. Our family had a huge windfall of income all at once when a house sold, but then we had to both fund Dad’s next project and live off those proceeds for an entire year. I learned a valuable lesson at an early age.
Dad was an excellent carpenter, and the houses that he refurbished were exquisite. But his business wasn’t profitable because of the time it took him to do the work by himself. As a fear of public speaking coach today, I see people make the same mistakes. They read blogs, watch YouTube videos, maybe even go to a Toastmasters for support, and all of these sources have excellent content. However, in reality, they are trying to conquer their nervousness by themselves. As a result, it takes a LONG time.
Lesson #1: Speed and Quality is Much More Profitable than Just Quality
The only commerce for about 10 miles from my house was a couple of liquor stores. My little brother and I would look for loose change under seat cushions, and we’d also dig through trash cans for Coke bottles (the stores would buy them from us for $.10 each back then). Whenever we were able to scrounge up enough change, we’d go to the liquor stores and buy candy of sodas. Then, one year my school had a candy drive. We were told that if you just sold one case of chocolate bars, you’d get your name put into a hat. At the end of the drive, the principal would draw three names out of the hat. One of the names drawn would get $25, another $50, and the third would get $100 — CASH. I took my case of candy out door-to-door to all of our neighbors. I was terrified. I was nervous just speaking to adults in general, but asking them to buy something from me while interrupting their dinner was terrifying. It took me an entire month and a lot of “No”‘s, but I sold my entire case of candy and got my name put into the hat.
On the day of the drawing, I was so nervous. Any one of those prizes would change my life. The first name, the $25 winner, was drawn. It was my best friend, Barry J. Tubbs (for some reason, Barry always added his middle initial when he told someone his name). I was so happy for him, but a little disappointed that I didn’t win. I got more nervous as the principal pulled out the $50 name. It was… Barry J. Tubbs. I was shocked and confused. I had assumed that you could only sell a single case. No one told me that you could sell more cases and get your name entered into the drawing more times! The third name was drawn. It was also Barry J. Tubbs. Turns out that Barry had sold over 50 cases of candy in the time that I sold just one, and he walked away with $175 in cash!
I learned that selling was a very well compensated profession. So, the next year, my little brother (who was in kindergarten) and I came up with a plan. I saw what Barry did, and fortunately, Barry had transferred to a new school. The door was wide open for us. We decided that going door-to-door in one of the poorest parts of the state was silly. But we knew that hundreds of people stopped in to Sody’s Liquor Store every day to buy alcohol. So, we stood outside the store, and we asked every person who walked into the store to buy candy from us. I was way less nervous because I wasn’t interrupting dinner, and the potential customers would almost always make eye contact with us and smile at us when they realized what we were doing. We sold out our first day. We went back day after day. We didn’t always sell out, but we sold more candy that year than any other student. We got great prizes for it as well.
Most people who have a nervousness about public speaking look for ways to eliminate the fear by eliminating the opportunities. (If I don’t speak, I won’t be nervous.) The most successful business people, though, look for ways to make presentations less stressful so the nervousness drops considerably.
Lesson #2: Look for Ways to Make Fearful Situations Less Fearful.
The elementary school that I went to had two distinct groups. There were the preppy kids who lived in the planned community around the golf course, and then there were the kids like me who were bussed in every morning from the poor rural area. It was hard to fit in, and I was a shy and skinny kid. I got picked on… a lot. My clothes were shabby. I had bucked-teeth. In addition, I was also so small that the other kids towered over me. One day at recess, Ken, a kid who got put back a year, wrestled me down in the schoolyard. I fought back, but before long, Ken’s size and strength overcame me. He pinned my shoulders to the ground and punched me over and over and over in the face. There was nothing that I could do. I guess he got tired because he eventually just stopped. I was left there bleeding with what seemed like the whole school looking on.
I decided that I didn’t want to be a skinny kid anymore. I convinced my dad to loan me the money to buy a weight lifting set from a garage sale. I worked out every day. By the time I entered the 8th grade, my body had changed significantly. I saw that one of the high school kids had a t-shirt that said “200 lb Club”, and I asked one of my friends what that was. It turns out that when the high-school football team maxed out in weight lifting, they gave shirts to the guys who could bench press 200 lbs, 250 lbs, and 300 lbs. The whole gym went nuts when, at the age of 13, I become the youngest person in the school to join the 200 lb Club. A year later, I joined the 250 lb club.
When I 15, my dad got a great job in Temple, Texas, and my family moved there. When I arrived at the new school, though, no one there knew that I was the small, skinny, buck-toothed kid (my permanent teeth were a little straighter than my baby teeth). I was the new kid without a history. I was no longer the third-string bench-warmer on the 7th-grade football team. All of a sudden, I was the stocky, strong kid who got things done. The coaches on my new football team loved me because I worked harder than anyone else. Spike Dykes, head coach of Texas Tech, was the guest speaker at my school’s end of season football banquet my senior year. The team honored me with an award that night that was voted on by the players. At the end of the banquet, one of my coaches introduced me to Coach Dykes. He turned to me and said, “Son, I can’t give you a scholarship, but if you walk on and prove your yourself, I’ll make sure you get a good education.” That’s all I needed. In the fall, I was a Red Raider. I graduated in just three and a half years, and I was able to play football with guys like Zach Thomas (linebacker for Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys), Lin Elliott (Super Bowl kicker for the Cowboys), and Sammie Walker (corner-back for the Pittsburgh Steelers). My linebacker coach was Gary Gaines who was portrayed by Billy Bob Thornton in the movie Friday Night Lights. I learned more about leadership and team building from Coach Gaines than from any other source in my life.
So, in essence, I owe my education, and really my career as a speaking coach, to a punk kid in the fifth grade who beat the crap out of me. That huge obstacle became the source of a big strength in my life.
Lesson #3: Obstacles that You Overcome Often Become Significant Strengths.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway — From Timid to Fearless in One Year
Coach Dykes kept his word. I got a great education… And I had to pay for it myself. My college days often looked something like this…
- 4:30 AM in the gym lifting weights and running.
- 8:00 AM – 2:00 PM Class. Since I was paying for my school on my own (I was still really poor), I took as many classes as I could each semester. I figured that the bulk of my expenses while at school was for room and board, so if I could graduate early, I’d save tens of thousands of dollars.
- 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM I’d head to the field house to watch film.
- 3:00 PM – 6:30 PM was football practice.
- 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM I’d do odd jobs. Basically, anything I could do to make a little money.
- 9:00 PM – Midnight, I’d do homework and study.
During the summer, I’d work full-time, pay off my credit cards, and save up as much money as I could to take me through the next year.
I was studying Business Management, and my Sophomore year, I qualified for a scholarship from Phillips Petroleum that was set aside for Juniors and Seniors who specialized in a specific management degree called Petroleum Land Management. I qualified for the degree because I was already taking Junior level classes in my Sophomore year. So, basically, Phillips said that if I changed my degree plan slightly, they’d pay for my education. That summer, I applied for an internship with Atlantic Richfield (ARCO), and I was the youngest intern accepted into their program.
So, although, I had actually come to Texas Tech to play football in hopes of getting a scholarship, it was my work ethic in the academic part that actually led to that scholarship.
Lesson #4: A Strong Work Ethic Overcomes Most Deficiencies
That summer at ARCO was phenomenal. It was the peak of my college career. I had my scholarship and a nice job, all my bills were paid, and I was expecting to make the travel squad for the football team in the fall. I was on cloud nine!
One of the projects that I worked on at ARCO was marketing and selling a gas plant in Enid, Oklahoma. Here I was, just 20 years old, and I was putting together marketing proposals, scheduling tours for prospective buyers, and working with the company attorneys to conduct the sealed bid auction and transfer ownership to the new owners. That experience in the business world was priceless. At the end of the summer, though, I had to travel to Dallas to give a presentation to my boss, my boss’ boss, the 11 other interns, their bosses, and some of the corporate vice presidents who flew in from Bakersfield, CA.
A week before my presentation, my boss called me into his office. He told me that he had received word from corporate that since the price of oil was so low, ARCO was going to be downsizing. He said that unlike in years past when an intern was almost assured of becoming a second year intern, they were likely to have fewer spots in the program next year. He suggested that I focus extra hard on my presentation because it would be the one place for me to showcase what I had accomplished. I remember walking out of his office in terror. Up until that meeting, I could see my whole future laid out clearly. I was one of 12 students who the #4 company on the Fortune 500 list had chosen as an intern. However, after that meeting, I realized that if I performed poorly in my presentation, I could lose it all. To make matters worse, the spring before my internship, I had taken a business communication class. My grade for that semester was based on an average of three presentations that I had to deliver to the class. I received a 94% for the first presentation. However, on the second, I got an 84%. I got a 74% on the third. In my mind, I was thinking that “Every time I give a presentation, I get WORSE!” And I hadn’t delivered any more presentations since the class ended. The closer I got to the presentation the more nervous I became.
When I walked into the room, I realized that I was the only person in the room not wearing a jacket. (I didn’t even own a jacket at the time.) The first intern got up to speak and had everyone laughing within a few sentences. (I didn’t have any jokes in my presentation.) The next speaker had a number of colored slides that she used as visual aids. Keep in mind that this was in the overhead projector days, so colored slides were rare. (I didn’t prepare ANY visuals.) The panic was increasing. When I was called to speak, my palms were sweating profusely. I speak pretty fast anyway, but when I get nervous, I speak REALLY fast. I delivered my entire 15-minute speech in about three and a half minutes. I also didn’t have a great ending, so I just finished the last sentence and quickly sat down. The ending was so abrupt, that the person leading the meeting wasn’t sure what to do, so she just called a break. As everyone went to the bathroom and got coffee refills, I sat in my seat with my head hung low, because I knew that no one in the room thought that I did well. I had blown my big opportunity.
I went back to my room at the end of the day, and all I could see in my head was Ken’s fist pounding into my face. I had the same determination, though. I vowed that my public speaking fear would never hold me back again. So, when the interviewers came in the spring to recruit their next batch of interns, I put my name on the list. My advisor pulled me aside and told me that they had chosen to not even interview me, though. I was crushed. I ended up getting a job that summer working in Denver for a smaller, independent oil company. Up until the time that I met my wife a few years later, it was the best thing that ever happened to me!
Although that time in my life was one of my lowest, today I realize how much of a blessing the whole incident was. That presentation fiasco was the first step down a road that changed my whole life (and the lives of 100,000 other speakers) for the positive!
Lesson #5: The Toughest Challenges in Your Life are Often Your Biggest Opportunities for Improvement
“When Life Knocks You Down, Try to Land on Your Back, Because If You Can Look Up, You can Get UP!” — Les Brown
Dave Herbally was the president of his small, family owned oil company in Denver who hired me the next summer. I saw Dave have tremendous freedom as a business owner. This was an entirely different culture than what I had experienced the previous year. At ARCO, we were selling oil properties left and right to cut costs. However, at the same time, Dave was buying oil properties left and right at garage sale prices and making a fortune.
In the middle of the summer, the AAPL (American Association of Petroleum Landmen) chose me as their international student of the year. They flew me to Houston to receive the award at their annual convention. I knew that I’d have to give a speech, so I began studying up on how to deliver a fantastic acceptance speech. I started with a book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. I also read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I practiced over and over and over again and added in a little humor this time.
The night I was to receive the award, I strategically waited until just the right point in the agenda to go over to the head of the intern program at ARCO. (The one who chose not to interview me a couple of months earlier.) I thanked her for allowing me to work for the company the prior year. We made some small talk for a couple of minutes, and she asked me what I was doing there at the meeting. At almost that exact moment, the announcer came onto the stage to present my award. I excused myself, went on stage, and gave a fantastic three-minute speech (this time a good one). I then went back to the ARCO woman and said, “Sorry about that… You were saying?” It felt so good.
Three years after I graduated, I found out that the office that I had worked in at ARCO had downsized from 300 employees down to three employees. Many of my friends who had worked there for 10 to 30 years lost their jobs, and had to start over. I realized what a blessing I had had received when I didn’t get asked back the second summer.
“Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” — Garth Brooks
Lesson #6: Success is the Best Revenge.
My Public Speaking Fear Led to My Transition in Careers
Since I had such a great experience with Dave’s company in Denver, when I graduated, I worked for a small oil company in West Texas that was owned by the former mayor of a little town called Big Spring. Just like with Dave’s company, I learned an awful lot about business, because I reported directly to the owner of the company. I could see the handwriting on the wall, though. The price of oil was at about $16.50 a barrel. I knew that sooner or later, my boss would have to let me go, because there just wasn’t enough work for everyone. One of my friends from college lived in the same town, and he got a sales job right out of school. He was making a really good living, and when I told him that I wasn’t sure that my boss was going to be able to keep me busy much longer, he suggested that I go into sales.
I was nervous about making a career change, but I really didn’t have any choice. My only sales experience was my candy sales in elementary school. So, I decided to look for some help. I was flipping through the Yellow Pages (this was before the internet) for a sales recruiter because I figured that someone in that business would know where someone would go to get training in sales. Just below the last listing under Sales Recruiter was a header entitled Sales Training. And the only listing under the header was for a company called Dale Carnegie Training. I remembered that a couple of years back, Dale Carnegie’s book had helped me when I was practicing my award speech, so I called the phone number.
I met with the local instructor, and she assured me that if I paid the $895 ($2195 in today dollars) tuition and completed the entire three-month course, that the class would definitely help me become a good salesperson. My response was, “Excuse me… How much and how long?” She repeated herself and said, “If the class is important enough to you, you’ll find a way to come up with the time and the tuition.” I knew that I needed help, and I was pretty sure she could provide me with that help. So, I looked her in the eye and said, “I will be there.” The class started in three weeks. I had about $300 in the bank. So, I had just a couple of weeks to come up with the rest of the tuition.
I traveled a lot in my job, and we received a per diem of $35 per day. I brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with me on each trip for the next couple of weeks, and I was able to use the per diem as part of my tuition. I was still $150 short the day of the course. I remember going to the ATM and getting a cash advance on my credit card to come up with the rest of the fee. I walked into the classroom with a check and presented it to the instructor. She was shocked. She said, “A lot of people tell me that they are going to follow through, but very few people actually do.”
Lesson #7: Keep Your Word, and You Will Gain Respect from People Who Matter.
The class did take three months to complete, but after the first four weeks, I went to my boss and quit my job. He was relieved because he was just about to have to fire me. I got a door-to-door sales job. I made money right away, and I was helping people. In fact, my first sales manager was Scott Yancey from the TV show Flipping Vegas. At the time, we were working for Scott’s brother who owned a satellite TV company back at the time the Dish and Direct TV were just coming onto the scene. Within six months, I was the top sales guy, and I was just using the skills that I had learned in the leadership course. One morning, though, I came into the office and Scott wasn’t there. His brother told us that Scott had moved to Las Vegas asked me if I’d like Scott’s job. I was surprised because I really only had six months of experience in sales and no experience as a manager, but I happily accepted. That first month as a manager, I made more in my bonus check than I had in my entire paycheck at the oil company.
I called the woman who taught my leadership course, and I gave her the news. “This stuff really works,” I said. A few months later, an advertising company recruited me as a salesperson for their company, and my income doubled. A little over a year from the time that I started, I had become that company’s top salesperson as well. At the time, I was reading about 50 books per year, and I listened to audio recordings in my car one the way to and from sales calls. I had a mobile library where I was sucking up as much information as I could.
A couple of years later, I began working for the woman who taught my leadership class. The training had been so helpful for me, that I wanted to help other people. I spent a total of about six years with the company. I spent three of those years exclusively in sales. However, I was also training with some of the top instructors in the world to learn how to teach. When I left the company in 2000, I had been decorated three times for superior instruction, and I was in the top 30 of 3000 sales reps in the company worldwide. Unlike the other instructors for the company who lived and breathed Carnegie, I was still reading, and I was still learning from my mobile library for hours every day.
Interestingly, I was at Carnegie during the Dot Com boom and bust of the late ’90s. I noticed the same thing happening there that I had noticed at ARCO. The company was so big (they had over 1000 instructors) that as the market started to change, they were very slow to adapt to that change. To make a single change to one of their classes, it took YEARS. I started thinking back to my time with Dave Herbally, and I realized this was a fantastic opportunity.
Lesson #8: Companies Who Can Quickly Adapt to the Needs of Their Clients Grow Faster than Those Who Can’t
Now, those first years weren’t all glamorous and rosy. I started The Leader’s Institute ® in March of 2000. My total revenue by the end of 2000 was $27000, and most of that income came from a single client. (That is total revenue, not net!) In 2001, I ended the year with just about $70,000 in revenue. In 2003, I still didn’t have any permanent employees, but I had six contract instructors who were teaching classes for me. For the first time as an entrepreneur, I began to make a little money, so I wanted to reward my contractors. At the end of the year, I paid everyone a Christmas bonus because there was a little extra money left in the bank account. However, after I sent the checks in the mail, I realized that I had an error in my calculations and that when my contractors cashed those checks, my account would be overdrawn. My little brother was getting married in Orlando, and I was the best man. My wife and daughter flew into Orlando on a shoestring budget. I remember my whole family going to the Rainforest Cafe before the wedding, and my wife and daughter and I split an appetizer and all drank water so that we’d have enough money to get back home.
When we landed at DFW airport, we went straight to the post office box hoping against all hope that a client check was waiting for us. I remember saying a short prayer before I opened the box. There were three good-sized checks in the box. We rushed to the bank and deposited them just in time to cover the bonus checks. That was the absolute last time that we ever had to worry about money. By then, we were teaching over 200 Fearless Presentations ® classes every year, and the company grew and grew.
People often ask me, “Doug, how did you do it?” It was actually a simple process (not easy but simple), although it took some time. Basically, we started with a really good class, and after I taught the class a few times, anything that worked really well, we kept. Anything that didn’t work perfectly, we cut. I did that over and over again until the class was efficient and perfect. I was doing what Carnegie couldn’t do. I was adapting my class to the market on the fly. It worked perfectly!
Everything that I experienced up to that point led to the success of the Fearless Presentations ® class. It took me 35 years to create a million-dollar company. However, it only took me an additional six months to create the second million dollars. Once my team and I got the process down cold, the success was automatic. (For details about what we cover in the Fearless Presentations ® class, click here!)
Lesson #9: Create a Pattern for Success and Your Success will be Automatic
Since that first Fearless Presentations ® class in 2001, we have refined the process over and over quickly adapting to changes in the business world. We look forward to working with you and helping you accomplish what you need as well!