Doug Staneart — President and CEO of The Leader’s Institute ® and Creator of the Fearless Presentations ® Public Speaking Training Programs.
This is my story of triumph over public speaking fear. 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.
However, that failure allowed me to help over 100,000 people conquer the same challenge. In fact, each obstacle taught lessons that allowed me to create one of the most successful training companies in the world.
I hope that my story can help you overcome your challenges as well! My point is that if I can become a great speaker… ANYONE can become a great speaker. You will have to work. You will also have to embrace your fear. However, you will experience great rewards when you do!
How a Shy, Introverted Weakling Played NCAA Football (and Survived)
I grew up in Palarm Creek, Arkansas. All total, we had, maybe, 400 people in the area.
My dad bought a two-room shack that was falling to pieces. That same year, he 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. Then, he would spend six months to a year remodeling the house. Finally, (hopefully,) he would sell the house for a profit.
After owning my own business for over 20 years, I now realize the mistake that my dad made. He took too much time on projects. Since he was such a skilled carpenter, 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.
Interestingly, this is the first major lesson of public speaking. That’s right, it is a valuable public speaking tip. 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.
Today, I see people make the same mistake with speaking skills. They read blogs, watch YouTube videos, maybe even go to a Toastmasters for support. All of these sources have excellent content. However, just like dad, they are trying to do everything by themselves. As a result, it takes a LONG time.
Life Lesson #1: Speed and Quality is Much More Profitable than Quality Alone.
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. It was terrified. I was nervous just speaking to adults in general. 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. The principal drew the first name — the $25 winner. It was my best friend, Barry. I was so happy for him, but a little disappointed that I didn’t win.
The principal then pulled out the $50 name. It was… also Barry.
How was this even possible? 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 principal drew the third name. It was also Barry.
Turns out that Barry had sold over 50 cases of candy in the time that I sold just one. He walked away with $175 in cash!
Early Successes or Failures Create Patterns in Your Life.
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. (The store was about 100 yards from our front door.)
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. In fact, the customers would often make eye contact with us and smile when they realized what we were doing. We sold out our first day.
My brother and I did this every day for weeks. 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 are nervous about something try to eliminate the fear by avoiding the skill. (If I don’t speak, I won’t be nervous.) Successful business people, though, look for ways to reduce the nervousness all together. We find ways to make uncomfortable things more comfortable. Then, we are able to do things that others aren’t willing to do.
Life 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 around the golf course. Then, there were the kids like me who were bussed in every morning from the poor 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. Eventually, thank God, he got tired and just stopped. I was left on the ground bleeding with what seemed like the whole school looking on.
This was one of the most defining moments of my life. I had a choice. I could continue being the shy skinny kid and keep getting picked on. Or, I could make the decision that my current situation didn’t define who I was.
So, I decided that I didn’t want to be the skinny kid anymore. While the other kids were becoming experts at Atari, I convinced my dad to loan me the money to buy a weight lifting set. I worked out every day. By the time I entered the 8th grade, my body had changed significantly. Instead of “skinny,” I was now lean and “stocky.” I began to LOVE my workouts.
Once You Make the Decision, The Work Isn’t Work Anymore.
My school was a combined junior and senior high school. One day in the lunchroom, I saw a high school guy wearing a t-shirt that said “200 lb Club”. It turns out that the football coaches gave shirts to the guys who could benchpress 200, 250, 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 Texas. At my new school, 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. No longer was I the third-string bench-warmer on the 7th-grade football team. All of the 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. My senior year, Spike Dykes, head coach of Texas Tech, was the guest speaker at our sports banquet. At the end of the night, 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 yourself, I’ll make sure you get a good education.”
That’s all I needed. In the fall, I was a Red Raider.
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.
Life Lesson #3: Obstacles that You Overcome Often Become Significant Strengths.
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.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway — From Timid to Fearless in One Year
Coach Dykes kept his word. I got an excellent 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. Then, I’d use whatever I had left to take me through the next year.
I was studying Business Management, and in my Sophomore year, I applied for a scholarship from Phillips Petroleum. The company offered the scholarship to Juniors and Seniors who specialized in a specific degree in the oil field. Since I was already taking Junior level classes in my Sophomore year, they bent the rules and offered one to me.
Basically, Phillips said that if I changed my degree plan slightly, they’d pay for my education. So, I went to Texas Tech to play football hoping to get a scholarship. However, it was my work ethic in the academic part that actually led to that scholarship.
Life Lesson #4: A Strong Work Ethic Overcomes Most Deficiencies
The next summer, Atlantic Richfield offered me one of only 12 internships offered to students that year. Interestingly, if I had not changed my degree plan, I would have never known or applied for the internship.
That summer at ARCO was phenomenal. It was the peak of my college career. I had my scholarship and a nice job and all my bills were paid. In addition, 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. Unlike in years past when an intern was almost assured of coming back, they would have fewer spots next year. He suggested that I focus extra hard on my presentation. The presentation would be the one place for me to showcase what I had accomplished.
A Lot of Public Speaking Fear Comes from a Greater Risk of Failure.
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 #13 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 gave 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.
The Incident that Set the Stage for My Speaking Career Was a Huge Failure.
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. My entire 15-minute speech lasted less than four minmutes. (By the way, I said every word.) 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. I had blown my big opportunity.
It was as if I was once again the shy skinny kid, and the bully was punching me in the face. When the interviewers came in the spring to recruit their next interns, I put my name on the list. My advisor later told me that they had chosen to not even interview me, though. I was crushed.
Although that time in my life was very low, 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 for the positive.
Life 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.
Life Lesson #6: Success is the Best Revenge.
That summer, the association for our industry 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 how to deliver a fantastic acceptance speech. The first book I read was called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. I also read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This time, I practiced my speech over and over and over again and added in a little humor.
The night I was to receive the award, I strategically waited until just the right point in the agenda. A few minutes before, I went 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 you saying?” It felt so good.
Three years later, I found out that the office that I had worked in at ARCO had downsized from 300 employees to just three. 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 received when I didn’t get asked back the second summer.
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 company in West Texas. 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. 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.
This was a huge change. I had just spent years studying the oil industry. In addition, my only sales experience was my candy sales in elementary school. So, rather than try to do this on my own, I decided to look for some help.
I met with the local leadership coach. She assured me that if I paid the $895 ($2195 in today’s dollars) tuition, the three-month course would help me. 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.”
Things in Your Life Will Never Change Until You Decide to Make Them Change!
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. To save up the money, I brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with me on each trip for the next couple of weeks. Then, I was able to use the per diem as part of my tuition. On the weekends, I worked 12-hour shifts for a temporary agency.
By the end of the three weeks, 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.”
Life 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 fourth class, I went to my boss and quit my job. He was relieved because he was just about to have to fire me anyway. I got a starter door-to-door sales job, but I made money right away. Just as an FYI, my fear of speaking to people was still there. However, I pushed through it and actually made a pretty good living.
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 the manager wasn’t there. The owner told us that the manager had moved to Las Vegas without any notice. He was under the gun, so he asked me if I’d like the manager’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 again.
A little over a year from the time that I started there, I had become that company’s top salesperson as well.
At the time, I was reading about 50 books per year. In addition, I also 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.
Successful People Are Always Adding to Their Education and Developing New Skills.
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. In that time, I worked with some of the top instructors in the world. Unlike the other instructors for the company, though, I was still reading and learning from my mobile library for hours every day. When I resigned in 2000, I had already received a couple of awards for instruction. In my last year there, I was number 30 of 3000 in total revenue generated for the company as well.
Interestingly, I worked for the company 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 that as the market started to change, they were very slow to adapt to that change. For instance, 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. A smaller company could better adapt to the changing marketplace more quickly.
Life Lesson #8: Companies (or People) Who Can Quickly Adapt to the Needs of Their Clients Grow Faster than Those Who Can’t
That year, I started The Leaders Institute ®. It was scary, and it was not all rosy and easy. We started by just identifying what needs the marketplace was experiencing and busting our humps to fulfill those needs. As we have grown over the years, we still make sure the small company advantages are still here. If you are experiencing presentation jitters or want to be more professional when you speak, I invite you to join us! We have classes coming up in cities all over the world.