Acting - or any role that involves regularly presenting in front of an audience - probably seems a bizarre (or masochistic!) career choice for somebody with crippling stage fright. Why would somebody who feels their heart threaten to pound out of their ribcage at the mere mention of public speaking willingly choose to stand in front of an audience?
Unfortunately for me, I had no choice. I was born a performer. I was that kid who stood up and sang, danced or acted at any given opportunity. Aged eight, I calmly gave a gospel reading in front of a huge congregation on live BBC TV. And so I went on, merrily taking the lead in school plays, gymnastics shows - you name it - and later clubbing my way uninhibitedly through my wild-child years. This was the eighties and I was Madonna.
But then in my mid-20s as I got further along in my acting training, insecurity and self-doubt crept in. I entirely lost my sense of identity and confidence. Before going on stage, my body would start to shake uncontrollably. This was more than trembling hands. The fear was so powerful and all-consuming that I felt I was about to black out. Yet the overwhelming desire to share and convey our human experience was still so strong. To fulfil this aspiration, I would have to somehow overcome this very abject terror of failing in public (surprisingly common amongst many public facing people) - and I now know that the key lay in accessing the power of vulnerability.
The awesome researcher and speaker Brené Brown says "vulnerability is not weakness, it's our greatest measure of courage and the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change". What a transformative, empowering way of looking at anxiety and fear. This quote helped me to finally understand how my fellow actors who also had shaking hands as the curtain went up were able to transform their fears into pure, adrenalin-fuelled performance, whilst I turned excruciatingly inwards.
In theatre, and then further along in my career (I now work in advertising), I noticed that whether in a creative performance or business pitch setting (and let's not underestimate the parallels between the two), audiences are drawn to people who are comfortable with their vulnerability.
Yes, a super clear, super confident delivery is fantastic. But more powerful still, in my book, is when somebody reveals who they are. Because to engage and connect with people, you don't have to be perfect or polished, but you do have to be able to convey your true self and of course the message you want to share - and to resonate, it has to come from the heart. That's very hard to achieve when you're trying to present 'like Steve Jobs', or 'like Michelle Obama', rather than as yourself.
My wakeup call came when I was asked to take part in my first ever advertising pitch. My employer had believed in me...hiring me with two GCSEs as agency receptionist and investing in my training and development, even paying for a master's degree which catapulted my confidence and my career.
We were pitching for a big client, and I was to deliver the people and culture side of our company story. I was terrified. I felt insecure, less experienced and not worthy of being in the room - let alone presenting to senior execs. I decided the only way forward was to confront this, so, I told my story of my unusual career path (actress to receptionist to talent leader), and how this had made me passionate about working in a role that helps others play their bigger game. It was the first time I'd revealed myself in a professional context. To my relief (and amazement) the client responded with huge warmth and cited my input as a key part in their choosing us to work with us.
Another key learning from that pivotal experience is that ultimately, nobody wants you to fail. Your audience is on your side and genuinely wants you to feel comfortable - so they can too.
Now, a few years on, one of the aspects of my role I love the most is speaking to audiences - big or small - and I deliver empowerment and confidence-building initiatives for senior women at my workplace, Maxus.
Accessing vulnerability absolutely doesn't mean seeking pity or conveying a need to be looked after. It's about realising and revealing that you are in fact imperfect; being OK with standing up and saying 'here I am, and I'll do my very best'.