“I had been terrified of public speaking. I couldn’t do it,” billionaire Warren Buffett admitted on an HBO documentary that chronicled his life. Buffett conquered his nerves by enrolling in a public speaking course. He knew that if he couldn’t speak in public, it would end his career.
Overcoming his fear changed Warren Buffett’s life. “Every week the instructor would give a pencil to whoever had the done the most of what we had learned the week before,” Buffett explained. “So in the fourth or fifth week, I proposed [to Susie]. And she said yes. That week I got the pencil, and got engaged.”
The documentary titled Becoming Warren Buffett isn’t the first time we’ve heard Buffett promote the value of public speaking. It did, however, offer a rare glimpse into Buffett’s private office where he proudly showed off his Dale Carnegie public speaking certificate, which he received on January 13, 1952.
“In my office, you will not see the degree that I got from the University of Nebraska. You will not see the master’s degree I got from Columbia University. But you will see the award certificate I got from the Dale Carnegie Course,” Buffett said.
I once read a book that featured training methods of elite military forces. In one chapter the author acknowledged his initial fear of high-altitude parachute jumping. How did he overcome his fear? By forcing himself to do it over and over and over until he “learned to love it.” If a person can overcome the fear of jumping from an airplane at 25,000 feet, it’s possible for anyone to learn to love public speaking. I’ve seen it happen countless times.
For one of my earlier books on communication skills I interviewed then real-estate mogul, Barbara Corcoran, before she became a star on ABC’s Shark Tank. “Communication is responsible for 90 percent of my success, without a doubt,” Corcoran said.
Fearless communication didn’t come easy for Corcoran. After an incident that gave her a severe case of stage fright, Corcoran—like Buffett—decided to conquer her fear to advance her career. Although she didn’t enroll in a public speaking course, she followed a similar method as Buffett did and found an opportunity to speak frequently. Corcoran pitched herself to NYU as a real-estate instructor. Over the next five years of teaching, Corcoran’s stage fright gradually diminished. And, like Buffett, public speaking brought an additional, unexpected benefit. Sitting in one of Corcoran’s classes was a sales dynamo who would go on to sell more condominiums for The Corcoran Group than any other realtor in the city.
People are often surprised when I give them a list of famous leaders who suffered from stage fright and who conquered their fears. I only write about those who have acknowledged their fears publicly. But for every one who is public, there are many others—billionaires, entrepreneurs, CEOs—who have expressed their fear to me in private.
The desire to be socially accepted by the group is deeply engrained in our DNA. It’s completely natural to want to impress people. Even Steve Jobs, who many considered one of the most charismatic speakers of our time, was a bundle of nerves before some of his most famous product launches. Jobs worked at it, and become a more polished, confident and fearless speaker as time went on.
The secret to overcoming the fear of public speaking is a three-step process. First, don’t be hard on yourself. Keep in mind that the most successful people in the world go through it. Second, start small. Buffett took a class with a few other students. Corcoran didn’t start by speaking to millions on television; she taught a small class. Third, take every opportunity to present and do it over and over and over.
Go ahead and jump. You might learn to love it.