The first time I set foot on stage to give a talk was in the 6th grade. I’ve always been terrified of public speaking, but at the encouragement of my friends and teachers, I decided to run for school treasurer. I still remember the moment I stepped on stage to give my speech. I looked up from the podium and saw 800 eyes staring at me. I felt a tense grip of my stomach closing in on itself. I panicked. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I ran off stage.
That moment on stage was pivotal for me. I was disappointed in myself for running away instead of confronting my fears. My fellow classmates at school and so many others on television seemed so comfortable with speaking to large crowds. I asked myself, Why couldn’t I do it? Is something wrong with me? Are people just born great public speakers? Is it possible for me to overcome this fear?
I turned to the Internet for answers. Online, I found forums of people who were experiencing similar situations as I was. People ranging from middle school students like myself to real working professionals wanted advice on how to become better public speakers. Realizing I wasn’t alone in my fear comforted me. It also made me realize that I had two options: stay in my comfort zone or work to overcome my fear of public speaking for the future. I decided to channel my frustration toward improving my public speaking skills. I started watching videos to study the techniques of great public speakers and practiced in front of my mirror at home. This felt silly, but practicing consistently helped me gain the confidence to speak in front of other people. I gradually improved as I started speaking to smaller crowds during classroom presentations and community workshops.
Two years later, I returned to the same stage, this time to run for the school secretary position. It was my last year of middle school, and I wanted to leave there with a positive experience of speaking to a large crowd. I was initially reluctant to put myself in the same situation again, but I decided that it was time to overcome my fear of public speaking. I couldn’t let it stop me from achieving my goals and doing what I wanted to do.
This time on stage, it felt much less daunting. Though I was nervous, I was able to deliver my speech in a calm, steady voice. I didn’t make as much eye contact with the audience as I wanted to, but I was proud of myself. I had delivered an entire speech on stage and confronted my fear of public speaking.
My 8th-grade speech gave me the confidence to take on larger speaking roles. In 9th grade, when my teacher asked me to deliver a speech as the valedictorian at my Chinese school’s graduation ceremony, I jumped at the opportunity. I was excited to put myself out there again and take the next step to further develop my public speaking skills.
This time, I had bigger goals. I wanted to deliver my speech at a steady pace and maintain consistent eye contact with the audience. I started preparing months in advance, practicing my speech every chance that I got. As I went through the process, I began to feel excited about public speaking for the first time. I rehearsed my speech in front of my friends during lunch, recorded myself practicing on my phone, and silently mouthed the words as I rode the bus to school. By the week of graduation, I knew every word by heart.
The day of my Chinese school graduation was exhilarating. My speech lasted for nearly eight minutes. It was the longest I had been on any stage at that point, but it felt like just the right amount of time. When the crowd applauded, I felt a surprising sense of comfort wash over me on stage.
Turns out, public speaking doesn’t have to be scary. It can actually be fun and exhilarating. The difference was in my mindset — viewing it as an obstacle versus seeing the opportunity for growth. Though I was initially uncomfortable speaking to large groups of people, once I started familiarizing myself, I grew to embrace the feeling of being on stage. It started to feel…normal. With each new public speaking engagement, I now see a challenge and opportunity to improve my skills further and build on my previous experience. Pushing myself beyond my comfort zone has helped me grow in so many ways, and is one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Fast forward to the second semester of junior year. In March 2019, I was invited to share my journey of founding SPACE 4 US, a community organization that provides career resources for underserved students, at a San Francisco TEDxYouth event.
At this point, I was more comfortable with public speaking than I had ever been. But there were new elements that made preparing for this event more difficult. There was tremendous pressure to do well because my speech would be recorded and uploaded to the TEDxTalk YouTube channel. There was also no podium for me to stand behind, so I had to incorporate different hand movements during my speech while maintaining eye contact with audience members across the large auditorium. I hadn’t spoken on stage since my valedictorian speech in 9th grade 2 years ago, but when I stepped on stage to give my talk, it felt oddly reassuring. In the end, I not only used my voice to share a story that mattered to me, but I was able to deliver the talk with a smile on my face.
Public speaking is still challenging for me. But I’ve learned to continue pushing my boundaries with every chance that I get. Becoming a good public speaker is a journey, not a skill to be mastered overnight. I’m not quite where I want to be yet, but I’m proud of myself for the progress I’ve made since 6th grade. I will continue working to become a better public speaker every day as I prepare for my next time on stage.