I was paddling like crazy and getting nowhere. Lying face down on my 6 foot surfboard, smelling the bubblegum flavored board wax, I was trying to ride a wave into the Huntington Beach beach. Learning to surf was one of the first things I wanted to do when I moved from Indiana to California, but it was a lot harder than it looked in those surf movies.
My wife had a friend at work who sold me an old surfboard for $50 and was willing to teach me how to ride it. (In hindsight, I think Tim just wanted someone to join him so he had an excuse to surf more.)
He made it look effortless. Paddle out with your arms, wait for a good wave, turn and point your nose at the beach, paddle a few fast strokes at the right time, push yourself to stand up and then ride the wave in toward the shore.
I had trouble with every single step of this process. Swimming out on the board was the hardest part. I got pummeled by wave after wave as I tried to move forward. Each time a wave hit I had to push my board straight down into it and let it wash over me. With exhausted arms I finally sat up next to Tim and waited for a good wave. Several small 3 foot waves gently rolled by before he whipped around and shouted “Here we go!”
I squinted through my saltwater reddened eyes to see a monster wave approaching. It was probably only 6 feet high but it looked like a monster to me. Tim yelled out “Paddle!!” I managed to turn my board toward the shore, but all I could muster the courage to do was look back over my shoulder and hold on for dear life. The last thing I saw was Tim popping up on his board and gliding off to the right, as the monster crashed down onto me in a swirl of sand, seaweed and saltwater.
What do you do when you’re gripped by fear? Let’s take public speaking for example, one of the most feared challenges people have to face at work, weddings and get-togethers. I have had a fear of public speaking all my life, and still feel it every time I get up to speak. It usually doesn’t wash over me in little waves. It comes at me like a monster wave just before I’m called to go on. In that moment, I have a choice to let the wave crush me or jump up and ride it.
Waves are powerful and unpredictable. That’s what makes them scary. I think it’s a mistake to try to manage such a force of nature. It’s better to let it propel you forward and even let it take you where it wants to go. No two rides are the same and rarely will you ride straight into shore according to your perfect plan. You have to allow yourself to make mistakes, knowing that the audience on the beach will still enjoy watching you ride.
Sure… practicing your speaking will help. And practicing in a supportive environment like Toastmasters will help you even more. You’ll develop stronger arms, learn when to paddle at the right time, and when to lean left or right to keep from falling off. And you will start improving exponentially when you decide to embrace the wave of fear and let it work for you.
One key technique that has helped me ride the wave, especially in speech contests, is to convert the internal nervous energy into outward kinetic energy. I plant my feet and deliver the first few lines from the power position at center stage, but as soon as possible I make a move left or right, usually when I transition into my first supporting story. I also like to incorporate “action stories” that lend themselves to active gestures. The stress energy is transferred to the audience members, who are wondering what’s going to happen next.
Did I ever become a master surfer? No, but the thrill I felt the first time I rode a big wave into the shore (on my knees, mind you) was something I’ll never forget. And the first trophy I was fortunate to win in a speech contest was validation that I was surfing on the right wave in my self-development.
Everyone feels fear. Embrace the wave, and it will carry you.