Public Speaking in English as a Second Language

As you might know from my previous post, I was over 20 when I started to learn English. Before that, I had to study Russian (yeah, I was born during the years of communism in Hungary), German as well as French in the school — but you can guess I don’t really speak any of them (maybe German a little bit).

When I went to my first job interview during my early university years, I got a one-page English text to test how much I can understand it. I tried to read it at least, then said: “Sorry, I don’t speak English.
I supposed I wouldn’t get the job.
I was wrong.
I got it but felt ashamed for not speaking “the” language.

I started to study English at the university, but I had only one class a week which was hardly more than nothing.
I had to get private English classes later, when I could afford, to start really learning the language.

By the time I finished my studies at the university, I also passed a B2 language exam.

But this still didn’t mean I considered myself to speak English.

In 2008, I was invited to speak at the “SharePoint Best Practices Conference” in Washington DC.
In English, of course.
To get prepared, I hired a private teacher to teach me to present in English. Well, first of all, to teach me speaking English.

I had some very hard moments and wanted to cancel my speaker agreement several times.

But the challenge was more motivating than frightening. So in the end, I traveled to the conference.

To be honest, doing my presentation there did magic to me. An unexpected (and unbelievable) transformation.

Right before my session, I was nervous like never before. I had severe self-doubt. Am I really good enough to be here?
I cannot even speak English!

I wanted to scream; I wanted to fly home immediately.

But I didn’t.

I did my presentation. It was not perfect, but you know what? — I enjoyed it! People were listening to me. And despite my imperfect English, they understood me — and this was the best feeling about it.

This conference was the beginning of my speaker career. I got more and more invites, from around the world. Since this event in September 2008, I traveled to twelve US states and more than thirty other countries around the globe to speak at countless events and workshops.

It’s been a long journey to consider myself speaking English.

On this journey, I had many ups and downs. I had attendee feedbacks like “Agnes Molnar is still a terrible presenter” as well as “Agnes speaks unacceptable poor English.
I had much more moments when I wanted to give up than I could even count now.

Why didn’t I give up then?

Because this is what I love to do.
Public speaking gives the experience of travel, having good friends around the world, meeting new people, eating amazing foods, etc. The list is never-ending. There are no words to express the experience.
And because I get dozens of positive feedbacks to each negative one. And event organizers still keep inviting me. 😉

Keeping these positive things in focus always helps, but I also have some practical tips I’ve been using these years to stay motivated public speaking in a foreign language, despite the frightening experiences:

1) Read a lot. No matter what. Read anything that you enjoy in English: novels, poems, non-fiction, blogs, white papers, news, etc. The more genres, the better.
I bought a Kindle a few years ago, and it was one of the best decision I’ve ever made. Accessing English books in my country is not easy. And they’re expensive, too. With my Kindle, there are no borders anymore.

2) Watch movies and/or listen to podcasts in English. It’s a good practice while commuting or exercising. I don’t watch TV at all (movies with my kids only), but subscribed to several podcasts. These have been helping me more than anything — one of my biggest fear has always been that I won’t understand what someone says (due to their accent or speed of speaking). It was a horrible feeling, you can imagine. Talking to people from Jersey or Scotland made me instantly nervous (sorry if you’re from there!). The more thing I’ve listened in English, the better I became in listening and my nerves started to calm down. Slowly but surely.

3) Speak, speak, speak. If you want to public speak, you have to practice. I am not the one who practices my sessions slide-by-slide, sentence-by-sentence in front of a mirror. I’ve never done that.
But speaking English in any situation I can is a great way to practice.

4) Look for opportunities when you can speak English “as if” that would be your primary language. There are so many options. My children were in a bilingual (English-Hungarian) kindergarten for 3–4 years before starting the school. I spoke to their English speaking teachers as much as possible. They have a native English speaking teacher from the US now, and I like giving her a drive home whenever I can. She’s an amazing person, we always have fun, but also, I can make conversations with her about anything, sometimes very unexpected topics.
I’ve also just joined to an international co-working place in Hungary. While I’m sitting here in downtown Budapest, writing this blog post I hear people speaking English in the lobby, in the kitchenette, even in the office hall around me.

5) Have foreign friends and don’t be afraid of talking to them. I know, it’s obvious. But believe me, I found myself trying to figure out excuses before a call and write an e-mail instead more than I want to admit. Simply motivated by the fear of what they’d think if I start speaking.
A skype chat? Coffee in the conference lobby? Dinner at the end of the day? — It really doesn’t matter. Whenever you have a chance, talk to and/or go out with you foreign friends. Today it makes me very happy knowing that I can discuss any topic with my friends who live in the US or Singapore or Australia. I can express myself and can understand them — and this is the most beautiful reward ever!
Bonus: make friends from various cultures.

6) Never mind if your English is not perfect. Mine is not perfect either. But I don’t care anymore. — I mean, I keep learning and continuously improving it but it doesn’t frustrate me anymore, and more importantly: it doesn’t block me from speaking.

7) Never mind having an accent. You know what? Someone told me a while ago that having an accent means you speak at least one other language (except if you’re from Jersey or Scotland 😉 ). I keep reminding myself to this. I don’t mind my accent anymore.

8) Let (and ask) your friends to correct you. Some of them will some not. Let them do whatever they feel comfortable with. I always appreciate when they correct me because I want to learn. Sometimes it’s my accent only, at other times it’s wording. Lifetime learning is my primary motivation!

9) Have your own “rituals” before your presentation and while on the stage.
I like getting on stage 10–15 min before the session starts, set up my laptop and projector, mic, etc., and silently observe as the attendees arrive. I always have still water with me.
During my session, I use NLP techniques to keep my nerves calm and stay focused. I make eye contact with my attendees (still learning to make it the right way though).
These rituals make you a better speaker, and also, they make you feel you are a better speaker.

10) When you’re on the stage, enjoy it! Don’t think about it as something you “have to” do, rather as a challenge you accepted. It’s fun. It’s an experience that is unique every time you’re facing the audience. You cannot have the same feeling, the same experience twice. And this is the most beautiful thing about it.

Ps. Yes, I still get negative feedbacks once in a while. Maybe I’ll get some for this blog post as well. While I especially appreciate the helpful ones with willing to help, the negative ones also help me to improve myself.

I am a transformational life coach, supporting high achieving professionals on the journey to find their true calling, and pursue their dreams. Ever wonder who you would be if you got past the fear? Curious what you could be capable of if you shed the blocks holding you back? I am here to help you to discover.

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