Dan Nainan dreaded public speaking. Whether it meant letting his voice be heard in a group meeting at work or standing up for a presentation in front of an audience, Dan hated the feelings that came along with speaking in front of others. But as a Senior Engineer at Intel, a large part of his role was to give technical demonstrations in front of thousands of people several times each month.
The pit in his stomach would start forming right before a presentation. It would remain as he presented, never giving him a break. Then afterward, no matter how smoothly his demonstration went, Dan always ended up believing he had done poorly. He would feel as though the audience could sense his nervousness, that they could almost feel that pit in his stomach as much as he could.
These presentations were a central part of a job he otherwise loved and they weren’t exactly something Dan could just walk away from, so he began looking for ways to overcome his public speaking fears. He started by joining the Toastmasters Club at Intel, something he found other presenters trying as a way to improve their own skills. This was a good start; after all, Toastmasters has thousands of clubs worldwide and has successfully helped more than 4 million people overcome their fear of public speaking. So it seemed like an obvious choice to Dan.
Unfortunately, the obvious choice didn’t mean the right choice. Though Dan found Toastmasters to be helpful and a wonderful organization, it didn’t quite solve his problem.
“Speaking in front of 10 or 20 fellow computer geeks just couldn’t begin to simulate what it was like speaking in front of thousands of people at Intel events all over the world,” said Dan.
To make matters worse, he was often sharing the stage with Intel’s most senior executives, sometimes even including Chairman and Co-founder Andy Grove, which left Dan feeling even more anxious. And since these executives weren’t attending his weekly Toastmasters meetings, it remained an unresolved stressor to him.
“I loved Toastmasters. But because I felt it wasn’t terrifying enough, I thought maybe I should take a comedy class,” said Dan.
He approached one of his employees who also happened to be a standup comedian. Finding it fascinating how comedians are able to control the stage and engage an audience, he talked to him at length about his experiences and advice on how to give it a try himself. His coworker’s advice was simple.
“He told me to write down anything that I thought was funny, anything that came up in conversation, or with friends, or stuff that occurred to me as I walking down the street,” said Dan.
After two years of collecting funny thoughts, Dan began looking into comedy classes in the Bay Area and found that comedian and motivational speaker Judy Carter was offering her first class in San Francisco. Dan couldn’t resist an opportunity to learn firsthand from Carter, who’s been invited to speak in front of some of the world’s biggest companies and whose books have appeared on bestsellers’ lists.
“To this day Judy has not offered another class in the Bay area, so I look back and feel like it was just meant to be,” said Dan.
Armed with his two-year’s worth of jokes written down on index cards, he went to the first class.
Almost immediately, Dan felt that comedy offered him the “terrifying experience” he seemed to be looking for. Not only did he have to get up in front of a room full of people and speak, but there was an expectation on both sides that he was there to make the audience laugh, which is even more difficult.
“I just started telling the jokes one-by-one, reading them off the cards,” said Dan. “Everybody was dying laughing at every joke, which blew me away. That was a great confidence booster, and I felt wonderful! So immediately, I was so comfortable not only speaking in front of people but doing comedy.”
Though Dan left that first class feeling over the moon, he quickly found himself back on Earth. As the second class started, Dan stood at the front of the room with a handful of his index cards, ready to hear his audience howl again.
But no one laughed- not at a single one of his jokes.
“Doing comedy and having people not laugh is the most humiliating thing one can imagine. For a few days, I seriously thought about dropping out of the class,” said Dan.
But he didn’t. Instead, he showed up the next week for his third class and tried again. Eventually, he managed to make one person laugh. And then another. Soon, he was making people laugh again. And after a while, all of the work he put into getting up in front of these classes and telling jokes started to pay off, leaving those technical demonstrations he used to feel so nervous about seem like a walk in the park.
Not only did comedy help Dan overcome his fear of public speaking, but it also helped him identify a new passion. After a few years of continuing to perform, Dan left Intel to pursue his comedy career full time, performing in almost every U.S. state as well as 27 foreign countries. To say he’s found success is an understatement. He’s performed at two Democratic National Conventions, a TED conference, and several presidential inaugural galas. President Barack Obama, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak are just a few to offer him testimonials.
“To this day, I shudder to think how close I came to actually dropping out after that second comedy class. How my life would be different right now!” said Dan. “I would still be at Intel, probably happy and successful, but always wondering what might’ve been. I don’t know what made me decide to stick with it – I guess because I had dropped out of so many things in my life.”
Today, Dan says his fear of public speaking is virtually gone.
“I’ve been in front of 1,000 people, 2,000 people, 6,000 people, even 50,000 people, and I never, ever getnervous about speaking, ever,” said Dan. “The only thing that makes me nervous is if something is wrong with the situation. For example, the show is taking place in a bar, which is a situation where I know that people keep talking to each other. Or they put me at the wrong time, say during dinner, when people are eating, which is a recipe (pun) for disaster (it is physically impossible to laugh with food in one’s mouth).”
And he’s a fervent believer in the power of comedy to help overcome public speaking fears.
“Even if someone has no aspirations whatsoever for becoming a comedian, it will help he or she become a better speaker,” said Dan.
Next up on Dan’s list of fears to tackle: talking to women. Who knows, maybe he’ll find a class for that too!