In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

May 18, 2017

Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking With ‘The Art of Laughter’

By In the Loop

Nhien Chau used to be very afraid of speaking in front of other people. Now, he’s entering – and winning – district-level speech contests thanks to his ongoing membership in Toastmasters.

Nhien Chau used to be afraid of speaking in front of others. But after facing his fear, he's entering speech contests and inspiring others by sharing his story. And a few laughs.  

According to some American fear surveys (yes, there really are such things), we the people fear public speaking more than coming face-to-face with snakes (or clowns), more than dangling from extreme heights, and … even more than dying.

For years, living with that fear was Nhien Chau's world. His dread of public speaking was so severe, he says it began to interfere with his ability to communicate with colleagues in the Biochemical Genetics Lab at Mayo Clinic. "English has never really been my first language, so I've always been self-conscious and worried about other people being able to understand what I'm saying or trying to say," Nhien, a clinical lab technologist, tells us.

One day, as Nhien was lamenting this with a co-worker, his colleague suggested he look into joining Rochester Chamber Toastmasters, a local affiliate of Toastmasters International sponsored by the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce. "She said she would join with me so we could overcome our fears together," Nhien says.

Nhien tells us that initially there was plenty of fear to overcome. "At first, it was really scary," he says. "Everything was very new to me. I'd never been part of an organized group like this before. It's very formal."

But also "very well organized," Nhien tells us. "Everybody in the group has a role," he says. "We have a timer to time the speeches. We have a grammarian. And we even have an 'ah and um' counter to count our 'ahs and ums.'"

It's been a great learning experience, he says. It's also been a great catalyst for improvement. Especially after Nhien decided to push himself out of his comfort zone by entering his first club-level speech contest last fall. "I was so nervous that I forgot some of what I was going to say," he tells us. "So I didn't win that one."

He did, however, come in second, which was enough to propel him to another round of competition earlier this spring. "And to my surprise, I made it all the way to the district level," Nhien says.

Nhien did it with a speech titled, "The Art of Laughing," which he tells us is intended to spread a message of not taking ourselves — and our perceived problems in life — too seriously. "I've always been somewhat of a pessimistic person and have always worried a lot," he says. "But as I've gotten older, I've been able to look back on most of those worries and realize they really weren't that big of a deal. So I just wanted to do something to share that with others and to help them realize that everything is going to be OK at the end of the day."

In his speech, Nhien talks about overcoming fears — of things like driving (and parallel parking) and public speaking — by acknowledging that these stresses and fears are part of life. And how he converted the "doomsday voices" in his head into a "laughing song" he calls "The Hee Haw" song. Learn how he learned to laugh at his fears by watching Nhien's full speech (complete with a highly entertaining song and dance) here.

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Tags: Biochemical Genetics Lab, Employee Stories, Nhien Chau

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