People talk about them all the time: lightbulb moments, flashes of inspiration, those times where you have no choice but to (metaphorically) shout, ‘Eureka!’ (I’ve never heard anyone shout this for real, it’d probably be a bit weird if you did).
I don’t doubt that they happen. I’m pleased for people that say they’ve had them. However, my experience has been slightly different – although, I would argue, no less profound.
Seven years ago, I was in a dark place. My life was governed, even characterised, by a paralytic fear of speaking. Not just to large audiences, either – this was a fear that struck during school classes, social situations, phone calls, work meetings, even restaurants.
It was when I’d just quit a marketing job over a fear of making an important phone call that I realised I was in serious trouble. I was newly married at the time and our intention was to start a family. I found myself wondering: how will my marriage and career pan out if I’m so frightened of speaking to other people? How will I ever be able to tell my children not to be afraid of something when their dad has been running scared all his life?
These – and other such questions – kept me awake, eroded my appetite and sapped the joy out of life. I knew I needed to do something and my frustration was building. Yet I was still afraid and lacking courage. So what to do?
People say you change when the pain of the problem becomes worse than the pain of the solution. I read an article on goal setting that talked about breaking down challenging goals into smaller ones. The suggestion was to make the first goal so easy that it would be impossible not to do it. I knew how to read and I could work a computer. I started devouring books, articles and YouTube videos on the subject of public speaking, learning why people are scared of it and how to speak more effectively.
It was still another year before I felt brave enough to take the next step, but at this point I was better informed. I realised that I was not so unique in my fear; three out of four adults struggle with fears or anxieties around public speaking. Surely, there must be places where such people go to help them overcome their fear and develop their confidence.
I searched Google and came across a place called Leeds City Toastmasters. It turned out this was a global network of clubs devoted to helping individuals develop their public speaking, communication and leadership skills. Sounded like just what I needed. So, in August 2015, I stepped into my first ever meeting.
As afraid as I was, I didn’t need to explain why I was there. The members were great. They took one look at my face and walked me through everything. I was reassured that I was amongst people that had – or were struggling – as I struggled. I was introduced to people that could help me and provided with supporting materials.
Then the meeting began.
I was utterly spellbound. Here were people that stood up and spoke. Well. They could hold the attention of a room for five minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes. They stood tall. They spoke clearly. They made sustained eye contact. They shared personal stories, inspiring ideas and powerful messages. I was enthralled.
By the end of that first meeting, I had made some serious decisions. I knew I was going to come back to this club regularly. I knew I was going to learn from as many of those great speakers as I could. I knew that I was going to do whatever it took, however uncomfortable, to become a great speaker and transform my life.
I stood up and spoke for the first time at the very next meeting. I still remember how it felt – terrifying. My palms were sweating, my right leg shook, my mouth was dry, I spoke far too quickly, every other word was ‘erm’, and I was pushing my wedding ring so hard into my knuckle that my finger was starting to bleed when I sat down.
And that was just sixty seconds.
Still, the only way was up. Meeting by meeting, month by month, things started to improve. I received powerful, helpful feedback. I worked with other members and mentors to identify individual areas for improvement and build the courage to combat them. Speech by speech, I got stronger, bolder, more passionate about being able to stand up and speak in front of people.
Speaking to other people started to transform my life. Relationships developed. Opportunities arose. I became an English teacher. I took Grade 8 in public speaking – and passed with distinction. I entered speaking competitions – and won. Earlier this year, I became Toastmasters UK and Ireland champion for feedback and evaluation. In October, I competed in the UK final of the Professional Speaking Association’s Speaker Factor Contest, in front of an audience of over two hundred professional speakers – and finished runner-up.. I’ve been asked to coach TedX Speakers and six-figure executives. I’ve helped clients secure multi-million pound contracts. I’m not even twenty-eight.
If I can go from the darkness I’ve described to these achievements, I truly believe anyone can do anything. It comes down to how much you want it and if you’re willing to pay the price of progress. It takes sacrifice, dedication and resilience. It takes patience and perseverance. But obstacles can be surmounted, challenges overcome and summits reached, so long as we brave the conditions and ignore the voices beckoning for us to come back down.
Speaking in new settings and to new audiences still keeps me on my toes – for me, apprehension is a sign that I take it seriously and want to do well. However, I’m not terrified like I used to be. I now have great people and experience to help me capitalise on opportunities.
I wouldn’t say there was a moment that a single switch was flipped and my life flooded with light. Nor would I say I don’t still have dark moments. I know that August 2015 was the moment that light, however dim, first began to glow, and it’s been growing brighter ever since. Thanks to great support, feedback and amazing experiences, I have developed courage and achieved things I never would have dreamt of. The future looks brighter than I could have hoped. I can now tell my two children they can overcome their fears – because their dad is.
Whatever your fears, you can overcome them. I can’t promise a lightbulb moment, but I can promise that if you refuse to give up and stick with it for long enough, you’ll someday stand in a brighter place and lead others out of the darkness you once knew.