February 5, 2019

Have you ever sat silently in a room full of boisterous friends or co-workers and weren’t quite sure what to say?

There were words, ideas, and thoughts definitely bouncing around in your head—but they didn’t quite make it out for fear of sounding out of place or not perfect.

That fear of speaking up, especially because you're scared it won’t sound “right” or perfect, is real—in fact, 25 percent of people report having a fear of public speaking.

It's a feeling I'm all too familiar with, and one that keeps me quiet a lot more than I'd like to admit. But I’m here to tell you that learning to speak up is actually possible—and it starts with embracing messy communication.

Our Communication Orientations

According to Theo Tsaousides, Ph.D., one way we can breakdown our understanding of public speaking is by figuring out whether we approach it from a "communication orientation" standpoint or a "performance orientation" standpoint.

Communication orientation is when we focus on what we're saying, the story we're telling, and how we express our ideas.

Performance orientation, on the other hand, is when we look at speaking, especially in front of an audience, as a moment when we'll be judged our critiqued by others.

When we make that shift from communication orientation to performance orientation, nerves tend to kick in, and that’s when we might feel the need to stay quiet.

When we make that shift from communication orientation to performance orientation, nerves tend to kick in, and that’s when we might feel the need to stay quiet.

But what if we embraced imperfect communication? What if we focused more on what we're trying to say—rather than saying it and performing "perfectly?"

There’s no one who understands that approach better than improv performers.

Improvisors cultivate their skills by following the “yes, and…” philosophy. Accepting whatever someone says on stage—however random—and adding to it with a "Yes, and..." is the cornerstone of improv.

What that means: You’re often put on the spot in terms of communicating and sharing ideas. It requires tossing perfection aside.

“When you start doing improv, you have to throw [perfectionism] out—basically, you don’t have a choice,” Bailey Edwards, a performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade, tells Shine. “It forces you to trust your gut and instincts about things, which I think is also very scary.”

The fearless and imperfect communication ethos that comes with improv can also be applied to everyone—even if you have absolutely no interest in getting on a stage.

Here are some ways you can shift your "orientation" around speaking, lean into your own personal “yes, and…,” and eventually, speak what’s on your mind.

Consider the Stakes

If you say the wrong word, will everything you're working towards come falling down? Will that promotion, or that romantic interest, just disappear into thin air?

The answer in most scenarios: Probably not!

When we consider the stakes of our communication, we can get a better handle on how much time and energy we should put into stressing about what we’re trying to say.

Assess the stakes, then use a little self-compassion and give yourself space not to say everything perfectly. It can go a long way in terms of getting the guts to speak up.

Trust Your Gut

You deserve to be heard, and your gut is often the source of the thoughts and feelings that others might want to hear.

Embrace that.

“We often are in positions in life with social media or the way we present ourselves to overthink what we’re about to present to the world," Edwards says.

In improv, performers have less than a millisecond to plan what they're going to say—and it's a scary yet freeing scenario.

"You're forced to go with your first guttural instinct and that can be scary and vulnerable,” she says. “But I think often times it ends up being the most true version of however we want to respond to life."

Trusting yourself—and those thoughts on the tip of your tongue—can help you speak authentically and get a better sense of how you feel and where you stand. If your gut's prompting you to speak up, there's a reason. Trust it.

Get Familiar With It

“Practice makes perfect,” the saying goes—but even when we’re not striving for perfect, practice still helps. Taking time to really feel comfortable with whatever it is you’re trying to communicate can go a long way when you actually do speak.

Whether that’s writing notes down, or repeating your talking points in front of a mirror, take as little as five minutes to paraphrase your ideas back to you.

When I get a jolt of nerves in a meeting, sometimes I take a moment to write out what I want to ask and refer to it when I’m speaking.

Be Open to Learning

Every mistake comes with the opportunity to learn (F.A.I.L. = First Attempt In Learning, after all).

Edwards described the imperfect communication she learned from improv as a gateway "into the idea that life is a series of reinventions and learning about myself.”

Be open to learning from your stumbles. If you do mess up, it’s a chance to hear another person’s insight or to take notes of how to say it better next time.

Start Talking

“Improv is not unlike therapy in which in order to benefit, you have to start talking," Edwards says. "Whatever comes out is raw and unshaped, but from that point it can grow into something that is very much shared."

Try starting small and speaking up in a low-stakes situation. Maybe it’s asking a question in a meeting, or talking to your favorite barista about something you’re familiar with.

Getting your thoughts out there in any shape or form can help free those brilliant ideas in your mind once and for all—no matter how messy they may be initially.

Read next: How to Make Perfectionism Work For—Not Against—You

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