How A Shy Person Can Learn Public Speaking

Interview with James Greenward, Public Speaking Expert

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of sheelamohan

I recently read James Greenward’s book, Colossal Public Speaking, and the reason I wanted to interview James is that he’s a self-confessed “shy” person.  I’ve read lots of public speaking books from people who are very extroverted and I felt they just didn’t understand how hard it can be for a shy person to speak in public. So, it was great to see a book on this topic directly targeted at shy people. I thought he’d be a fantastic resource to ask questions and help us figure out how even a shy person can learn this mystery of public speaking.

LWC: Hi James and welcome to Life With Confidence. I really appreciate you being with us today.

James: My pleasure and thank you very much for inviting me on here today.

LWC: One of the great points you talk about in your book, "Colossal Public Speaking – Public Speaking Guide for Shy People” is that when most people hear the words public speaking, they imagine standing up in front of a room and giving a presentation but it’s actually much more than that. Public speaking is also:

- speaking up in a meeting at work
- talking to a group of friends
- going to a job interview
- sharing your own ideas with others about how things could be done
- meeting new people at an event
- even talking to someone you’ve never met before at the bus stop

That’s so valuable to realize and it also makes you see why it’s so beneficial to learn everything you can about public speaking even if you never intend to give a big presentation to a huge group of people. Public speaking is something  you do all the time whether you realize it or not.

James: Yes and that’s the first point that I always make, whenever you’re speaking to another human being whether it’s 1 or 1 million of them, it is then public speaking simply due to the fact that you’re attempting to communicate a message to someone else and build rapport with them.

Now I noticed that in the list you gave a moment ago, you missed out one of the most popular markets for public speaking, the dating market.

public speaking can help a shy person with dating

This is one in particular that many people overlook, but the most important skill that dating experts always teach their clients, is that being a confident speaker is one of the most rewarding skills they can ever learn as it will drastically increase their chances of success. It also emphasises one other thing very few people realise, it’s not so much the quantity of your audience that’s significant, but quality.

Just to clarify what I mean. If you’re say, on a date with someone or you’re going for a job interview, in those cases your audience would be just one person. But would you place high value on them? Yes of course you would, simply because they have something that you really want or need. Successful public speaking is the means of actually getting that something from them.

LWC: That's such a great point. What was the turning point for you when you said, “Enough, I can’t let this fear control me anymore”? And, it really is that fear of public speaking that’s the biggest obstacle isn’t it? That fear of saying something stupid or failing or being laughed at or maybe even fainting in front of everyone.  So, what was your final straw and what was the first step you took to solve this?

James: Yes of course. I, Like most people, was just so horribly afraid of making a fool of myself and I would haunt my mind with all of the ways that I could end up embarrassing myself. You asked me about the turning point, well actually for me it was really 2 stages. As I explain in the first chapter of my book, I always envied confident speakers but just assumed that I wasn’t and never would be one of them as they were obviously born that way. That changed one day though when I attended a board meeting at work and a guy from another company gave the most amazing presentation I’d ever seen. I asked him what his secret was and in one single sentence he told me that he learned it rather than was born with it.

So I thought. WOW! That’s great, so all I have to do is get as much knowledge about public speaking as possible, after all that’s logical isn’t it. So I went to a local book store and bought a book on public speaking, I read it and thought, this is good stuff, I’ll be on stage giving talks in no time. But of course there were still gaps in my knowledge which I’d find in another book. The cycle continued, I just kept buying book after book on public speaking and even invested in some expensive courses. It took me a while to realise that I was no closer to my goal than when I started. After a conversation with my boss (at the time) about this, she told me that I had to come up with a new plan that would actually get me to my goal. Well that plan has now lead me to the stage I am today, and many others (Who I’ve taught) as well.


LWC: You bring up a really common myth I hear all the time about public speaking in that people seem to think the great public speakers are born being able to give amazing presentations. That they just knew how to do it and if you're not born with that knowledge, it'll never happen. You think public speaking is something you learn just like any other skill? Anyone can learn this, even a shy person? How long did it take you to get comfortable with these skills?

James: Well the first thing I would say is that some people are more gifted than others when it comes to speaking, that’s a given. But that’s only part of the equation, the most important thing is that it’s a skill that can be learned by almost anyone whoever they are. Now of course we can’t pretend that there aren’t some people out there who just haven’t got a hope of ever being able to speak in public, but what I can say, with confidence, is that those types of people are much rarer than you think and that the vast majority of people listening here right now, do not fall into that group and can indeed learn the skills. I’m certainly not gifted but I do have the skills and that’s what’s important, as it means that others can do the same.

With regards to how long it took me to get comfortable with these skills. Well it’s hard to say exactly because it’s not a discrete step from uncomfortable to comfortable; however I can give you the approximate time frames. When I started practicing speaking to myself it took me about a month to start speaking clearly and fluently, it then took about 4 months afterwards of really getting to grips with it and talking to critics, before I was able to present to people at work, and I have to tell you that when I did a presentation for the first time, it wasn’t half as bad as I’d imagined. Sure I was a bit nervous but it really wasn’t a big deal. Of course this was just my timeframe, others I’ve taught have done it far quicker than that and I’d say that anyone who puts their mind to it are likely to see result sooner than I did, without rushing at all.


LWC: What would you recommend as a place to start for a shy person wanting to get past this fear of public speaking?

James: Without a shadow of a doubt, the first place to start is by practicing private speaking. That is, speaking out loud to yourself with no audience at all. Many people will just gloss over this part as they think it’s too simple and that they can already do it, well what I can say to that is. “Don’t bet on it”. Just put it to the test and try and give a speech on something where you don’t have an audience. And by that I don’t mean just mutter a speech under your breath, I mean speak out loud in complete sentence without the ums and ahs everywhere. You most likely find this much harder than you think but don’t worry it will improve with practice.

What I strongly recommend you do if possible, is record yourself on video whilst you’re speaking as then you can play it back to yourself and see your progress and where you need improvements.


LWC: One thing I’ve noticed about shy people is that they tend to try and avoid eye contact. I can totally understand it. It’s scary looking people in the eyes when you’re shy. This is one of those skills that seems to be so important to master though if you want to be able to build relationships with people and with being able to speak in public. When you’re doing a presentation or even speaking in a meeting, you need to be able to look people in the eyes. In a friendly way as well. You need to smile, right? Otherwise, people might think you’re being hostile when that’s not your intention at all. But, do you think this is one of those things that would be good to practice doing with strangers like the person ringing up your groceries? Just smile, look them in the eye and say, "Thank You" or something like that? Did you have to learn this?

James: I’ll keep this brief. The answer is an emphatic YES, maintaining eye contact is such an important skill in public speaking and you should be practicing it at every opportunity.


LWC: What changes have you seen in your work and career from learning this skill? What were the benefits of pushing past this fear? And, did it make you feel differently about yourself after you learned these skills?  What changes have you noticed in your own life since you learned the skill of public speaking?

James: Where do I start? Well firstly I managed to get a few promotions at the office where I used to work. I quit that job though as I never really enjoyed it but now I had the confidence to actually look for a different job, which I wouldn’t have done in the past. There are very few areas of my life in which I haven’t seen changes for the better. Of course I’m still the same guy at heart but now I get to see the world through the eyes of a much more confident person. And as I keep saying, I’m just an ordinary guy and if it can benefit me in this way, then it can anyone else as well.


LWC: That's an interesting point you make about feeling more confident in speaking allowed you to look for another job. So, in a way, learning this skill gave you a lot more opportunities and prevented you from getting trapped in a job you didn't even like. That's so great to hear.

Do you still feel nervous before speaking in front of others? Is this something that will go away the more we do it? I know it did for me with things like speaking up in a meeting or talking to strangers. In one area it never did though. I had a job one time that required me to train groups of people to use a software program, it never got easier and I was never comfortable doing it. I ended up doing the ultimate bad thing and I eventually found someone else to take over that aspect of my job. I needed you to guide me through it so I’d be better at it and not just weasel out of it. To me, whenever I found out I had to do one of these sessions, I’d be throwing up for weeks beforehand over the stress of doing it. It was just so detrimental to my health having to do these things. It actually got worse, not better, the more I had to do. I never understood that. I know that’s not a common reaction but everyone kept saying to me that it would get easier the more I did it and it never did. So, I’m wondering if it is true for most people, it gets easier, the more you do it.

James: I rarely get nervous anymore as I now just see public speaking as a natural part of my life like going shopping, now of course there are occasions when I do get nervous but I’ve learned to manage that as well. It’s very interesting that you say there is one area you still have big problems with, in my experience and most others I’ve trained, it’s more of an all or nothing situation, you either can speak in public or you can’t. What I would say in your situation is that it is most likely a much more specific worry that you have. A past experience maybe, of teaching groups, a fear of the software not working, being asked questions that you can’t answer? It could be any number of things. What I’d recommend is that you find out what you fear the most and are always preparing for the worst case scenario and accept that it may happen. Practice makes perfect but only if you practice correctly, too many people only practice their strong points but don’t work on their weaknesses, I suggest that you devote a much higher amount of time working on that weakness of yours.

LWC: That's a good point. It's been quite awhile since I had that job so I'm not really sure what bothered me the most about it. Maybe if I’d just gotten someone to give me feedback on how I was doing, it might have made me feel better about the whole thing.  One of the things you recommend doing is finding a “critic” to help you become a better speaker. This is a great tip. An issue that can happen when you do this though is that lots of times when you ask friends or family to critique you, they’ll just tell you you’re fantastic no matter how bad you are. They think they’re being supportive by doing that. Or you’ll get people being negative without providing the constructive answers you need. How do you find a good critic or do you think sometimes it’s a matter of training your critic? I know with shy people, it can be hard to accept people’s comments because we tend to take them much more to heart than extroverted people. It’s so valuable though to not take it personally but to look at it as, “How can I use this to improve myself?” But, do you think you need to find a public speaking group like Toastmasters or what? How do you find those critics? I think they’re like absolute gold when you find a really good critic and support person.

James: Actually I don’t recommend talking to a critic, I say that it’s compulsory as it is the only way to get some real world experience. The best analogy I can think of is if you are training to be a boxer, the first step you would take is to become an expert at punching a bag i.e. hitting it hard and accurately, that would be the equivalent of becoming an expert private speaker which I teach as the first step. The next step after that is to practice with a sparring partner. As they will teach you about boxing under pressure, where you’ve got someone moving around and hitting you back. That is why I say talking to a critic is compulsory, you need someone to put you under a little bit of pressure so as to prepare you for the real world. And yes finding a good critic is hard for the reasons you just mentioned. I would say that there’s very little you can do to train a critic although you can tell them what you’d most like them to pick up on, the most important quality of a critic is that they are mature, I think that’s the best word to use, those who understand what your goal is. Oh and you're quite right about taking criticism, there’s no beating about the bush here, if you can’t take criticism then you’re doomed to failure. You mention “Toastmasters”, well I’ve never really looked into them before so I can’t really say too much about them, except that the reports I’ve heard are excellent. So the only advice I can give is to give them a try and decide for yourself, but please persist and don’t give up at the first hurdle.

LWC: Another excellent point in your book that I think shy people need to understand even more than other people is your comment about there’s a difference between “knowing” (as in read how to do something in a book) and “doing” (actually applying what you learned in that book). I think so often shy people read how to do something, give it a try, it fails (often far more spectacularly in their mind than in reality) and then they give up thinking they’re a failure. That “doing” step I think sometimes overwhelms people. Partly because they don’t break it down into a small enough first step but also because they expect to be absolutely perfect the first time they try something new. Any recommendations for people trying out the “doing” step the first time and how do we stop ourselves ripping ourselves apart afterwards?

James: Well actually you’re only half right about giving up at the first hurdle. Most people never even get past reading a book or watching a video. I didn’t when I first started and I’ve found that many people are the same. And yes those who do try and fail, are normally the ones who just try to take too big a step to begin with. Learn to speak without an audience to start with and don’t move onto the next step until you’ve mastered that. You may be terrible when you start but that’s what practice is all about, sooner or later you will get good at it. Criticise yourself but never beat yourself up.


LWC: I totally agree with that. It's about asking, "How can I make myself even better?" It's not about focusing on what you did wrong. It's about how to make constant improvements. Even the best of the best public speakers are continually learning and fine tuning their presentations.

How do you deal with physical signs that you’re stressed by speaking in public like your hands shaking or your voice going hoarse? It’s always more noticeable in our own minds too isn’t it?

James: The physical signs are almost directly related to your state of mind, prepare properly and these are much less likely to occur. Yes they are more noticeable in our minds except for one thing. The Ums and Ahs. These are the things that your audience will notice more than you and you must learn to watch them.


LWC: The other aspect of this is that shy people tend to think there’s something “wrong” with them because they don’t like social situations or giving presentations. But, that’s not true at all. There’s nothing wrong with being shy. We can’t all be extroverts or it’d be one noisy planet. Shy people really need to appreciate their strengths like being able to listen. Do you think there are areas in public speaking where shy people can actually use their strengths to make their presentations more impactful like being more willing to have the audience speak too or preparing more thoroughly than say someone who’s an extrovert?

James: That’s an interesting point and I would say that it is better to have beaten shyness than never to have had it. I’m very grateful that I was shy to start with, as I’ve learned to see it from both sides, what I can say though is that there has to come a time where a shy person must come out of their shell, because no one can do it for them. I learned this and let me tell you that it’s 100% true. Beat it and you will have the advantage over all these so called extroverts, as like you said, you will be a better listener.


LWC: Another way you have of looking at presentations is that you’re building a relationship with the audience. That’s one of the other traps I think shy people fall into when thinking about speaking in public. They think other people are going to judge them and find them lacking. That’s not true at all. Even when you’re giving a speech, the people want to hear what you have to say and also as you said, think of it as building a relationship with them. You could also think of it as if you don't give them this information they need, who will? They want you to share your knowledge with them. It’s not all about you. It’s about the audience and the purpose for why you’re speaking to them. That’s such a great tip. That must have been a huge leap forwards for you when you realized that concept when you first started learning how to speak in public.

James: Yes and this is so important. We all know the type of speaker who just basically talks to themselves, they’re either condescending or just plain boring, neither of which are good.


LWC: Do you think a shy person is always going to be shy, just possibly with better skills on how to handle it?

James: I wouldn’t say that a shy person will always be shy but I can say that they will be all the more grateful when they’ve beaten it.


LWC: Another lesson you discuss in your book is also one of my favourite things to discuss on my site and that’s about paying attention to your thoughts. You have a great tip which is to ask yourself, “Is this thought actually helping me to reach my goal?” One of the tricks seems to be to notice when your brain has taken off on its own and is on a terrifying downwards spiral of ripping yourself apart.  Sometimes it’s hard for people to realize that their thoughts are making things worse for them. Do you have a point where you realize this is happening?  How do you know when to ask the question? Any other tips with this?

James: I’m afraid there’s no easy way to do this but you must learn to stop the negative self talk in an instant, don’t try and think positive just think of nothing at all. As the old saying goes “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” And this goes equally for self talk.


LWC: I bet when you had that moment of feeling so incredibly frustrated about not getting your points heard in that meeting so long ago you never thought that a few years later you’d be writing books on the subject of public speaking and being considered an expert on the topic. It’s amazing how learning how to do something can take you places you never imagined. Shows how even “bad” things like thinking you’re hopeless at public speaking can turn into a “good” thing, doesn’t it?

James: Absolutely, and let me tell you that anyone has the potential to do this, not just with public speaking but with anything. Persistence is the key and making sure you break it down into manageable steps.


LWC: Besides your book which is a great resource, do you have any other resources to recommend?

James: I don’t recommend anyone buying books until they are well into the first step that I show, which is private speaking. There are many excellent books out there but they will be useless to anyone who hasn’t yet taken any action. There is one exception however based on what I’ve heard, and that is the “Toastmasters”. As I’ve already stated, I’ve not had any personal experience with them but I have heard many positive things.


LWC: Well, thank you so much James. You’ve provided some really great advice here. All things people can use right away to help them with public speaking.

Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add?

James: Yes and thank you for your time as well, you’ve made me think about things that I’ve not considered before and I will most certainly include them in my next update of the book. My final thoughts? We must all remember that our minds can be our greatest asset or our greatest liability, it all depends on how we use and train them. If I can learn how to speak in public then anyone can do it.


LWC:  I so agree with you about learning to use your mind to help you rather than hinder you. It's got to be the most important skill you can learn. And, again, it's something you learn just like public speaking.

Can people contact you if they have any public speaking questions and what’s the best way to do that?

James: Yes people can contact me via email if they have any questions but please understand that it is not possible for me to respond to all of them individually and I must give priority to those who’ve purchased my book. My email address is given on the contact page of my website, Colossal Public Speaking.


LWC: That's fantastic. Thank you so much. It's great to know that if you're a shy person who wants to overcome your fear of public speaking, you're not alone and there are things you can do and people willing to help. Very nice to know. Thanks again, James.

Here's James' book (click on the image) if you're interested in reading more about how a shy person can learn public speaking.

And, always remember, don't limit yourself. If you want to change things in your life, you can do it. It's just a matter of learning new skills and mastering your thoughts. Never stop learning.

Additional Public Speaking Resources

Magic of Impromptu Speaking by Andrii Sedniev

This book has some really valuable public speaking suggestions.  He has this great technique he describes using the word Relocate and discusses how to get into this mental zone. I found this trick was perfect not only for public speaking but also any other creative project you may want to do like writing or painting or even just psyching yourself up for a social situation. Definitely worth reading. I learned a lot of great stuff from this one.

Magic of Impromptu Speaking: Create a Speech That Will Be Remembered for Years in Under 30 Seconds

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