Overcoming Shyness and Fear of Public Speaking the African Way

Overcoming Shyness and Fear of Public Speaking the African Way

I was complimented last week after my Africa Day speech at the UK Parliament. I had been briefing a group of UK parliamentarians, African Ambassadors and members of the general public about the efforts of African Diaspora organisations to promote the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals among African communities.

Although I was moved and pleased when several attendees congratulated me on the eloquence, passion and confidence with which I had delivered my speech, I felt like a one-eyed woman being crowned queen in the land of the blind. For I know real masters of rhetoric and public speaking beside whom I am, and will always be, a very poor amateur. The chances are, if you have ever spent some time in an African village, you know them too. They are the villagers who speak at the village assemblies, which often take place in an area called discussion tree.

Parliament 2There are no microphones, lecterns or PowerPoint facilities at the discussion tree. You can only rely on yourself –your voice, your body and your brains- to speak loudly, eloquently and confidently enough to convince people. Furthermore, there are no podiums or tables to separate you from the audience. More often than not, you find yourself eyeball to eyeball, breath to breath with individuals who vehemently disagree with you, and will let you know how they feel in no uncertain terms by shouting, gesticulating and booing.

Compared to the daunting task of speaking at the discussion tree, addressing people at a Western parliament, university or any similar setting is child’s play. This does not mean that the villagers who speak at the discussion tree are superhuman. They too are as likely to be grappling with shyness and fear of public speaking as many of us. But they have developed and adopted effective techniques to overcome these challenges.

Most of us who have received a Western-style education tend to view African villagers as ignorant and uneducated. I too did so in my teens and early twenties. But I have had the good fortune to rethink this attitude many years ago. I was, for a long time, crippled by fear of public speaking due to my severe natural shyness and self-consciousness about my foreign accent when addressing people in Spanish and English. I know for a fact that I would never have conquered this fear had I not spent a lot of time observing speakers at discussion trees in many African villages, chatting to them, listening to them and, above all, learning from them.

Based on everything I have learned from a wide variety of speakers at African discussion trees, I can sum up the art of public speaking as a combination of, on the one hand, providing yourself with the mental and practical tools you need to improve your skills, and on the other hand, constant practice that will enable you to grow in confidence as you increasingly perform better.

More concretely, here are the 6 main lessons I learned from the discussion tree speakers:

  1. Accept and embrace your shyness and fear of public speaking

Acknowledging your nervousness and speech anxiety will not deter you. On the contrary, it will make you realise that you care about the issue(s) you intend to talk about. It will also help you brace yourself to confront your shyness and fear to the best of your ability. You will, therefore, develop the mental strength, courage and determination necessary to overcome these challenges.

  1. Create and adopt personalised techniques to conquer your shyness and fear

Once you have acknowledged your shyness and fear of public speaking, you should strive to find simple mental tricks to get rid of them. Be positive, the aim is not to beat yourself up for having weaknesses –as humans, we all have shortcomings and limitations-; your goal is to mentally strengthen yourself, so that you can perform well.

Give free rein to your imagination and be as creative as possible. For instance, if you have a favourite superhero or superheroine, imagine and cast yourself as that character. This does not mean that you have to literally don a catwoman suit like Serena Williams. You just have to visualise yourself as that character confronting shyness and speech anxiety, and ultimately prevailing. Another trick you may use when preparing and rehearsing your speech is to imagine that the people you are speaking to are your favourite flowers, animals, or anything that soothes you.

Parliament 3

  1. Reframe your relationship with the audience in a positive light

The audience is usually perceived in a negative and confrontational way. We often assume that people are intent on judging, criticising and mocking us. This increases our anxiety and fear of public speaking. Try instead to regard the audience as a friendly and admiring group of people who think so highly of what you have to say that they are prepared to drop everything else in their lives to come and listen to you. If you enter a parliament, an auditorium or any conference room with that mindset, you will not be intimidated, and will exude confidence.  You may also try to view members of the audience as potential allies who care about the same things as you, and are ready to collaborate with you to achieve common goals. As one villager told me, “I do not fear speaking to people at the discussion tree since I know that they are there because, like me, they want the best for the village.”

  1. Practice, practice, practice

When it comes to public speaking, you are always in an advantageous position because you have the opportunity to prepare your speech in advance. You can choose to dedicate a lot of time drafting, improving and rehearsing it, and preparing yourself mentally. It’s your show, you want it to be dazzling and wonderful, so do not hesitate to practise as much as you feel necessary. With practice come outstanding results and confidence. Of course, there will be occasions when you may have to stand in for another speaker at the last minute. But these are commitments you should only make once you are free from shyness and speech anxiety.

  1. Include your speech in your relaxation routine

No matter how busy you are, you should strive to frequently set aside some time for relaxation. It helps you improve your mental and emotional wellbeing, fills you with positive energy, increases your productivity, and enables you to develop Parliamentthe resilience and sense of humour you need to withstand life challenges and stresses –including, of course, the stress caused by fear of public speaking.

Whether your relaxation routine involves dancing, singing, walking in the countryside, meditation, breathing exercises or physical activity, try to include your public speaking preparation in this routine. Doing so will help your mind dissociate public speaking from anxiety and stress. For instance, I often practise important speeches in the countryside because trees, plants and birdsongs make me feel relaxed and reinvigorated. Furthermore, before every public speaking engagement, I have a natural-scented bath.

  1. No passion no speech

Try to adopt a “no passion no speech” rule. That is, do not give a public speech on an issue unless you care passionately about it. Public speaking is not your destination point, only the means you use to get there. No matter how many public speaking tricks and techniques you acquire or develop, no matter how much time you dedicate to the preparation of your speech, if you are not committed to using that speech to promote the realisation of a goal you passionately want to fulfil, you will not convince people, and you will certainly not mask your shyness and anxiety.

When you decide to give a public speech because you are driven by conviction and the passionate desire to promote a greater cause, you can easily block your shyness and speech anxiety. More importantly, you are able to transcend the rough and tumble of public speaking –whether it is an angry attendee shouting abuses at you, a patronising chairperson sniggering at your foreign accent, or you forgetting a central point you desperately wanted to make. For you are and will always be safe in the knowledge that regardless of how disastrous it could prove to be, the outcome of a speech would never be enough to deter you from pursuing your goal. After all, your goal is not to deliver a successful speech, but to use a successful speech to make a positive and lasting contribution to your cause in particular, and to humanity in general.

By Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell

Founder and CEO, Medzan Training                                      Contact Sylvie

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You Need a Cobweb Remover on Your Path to Personal Development

When I was growing up in Cameroon, one of the worst things that could happen to you was to be picked as a cobweb remover. The cobweb remover was the person we children would choose to walk ahead of everybody else on our way to the fields.

Our parents or guardians (in my case, it was my great-aunt) would leave at dawn to do as much work as possible before the scorching midday sun. We would follow them about three hours later with breakfast.

It did not matter in the slightest that in reality, the adults who had gone before us would have removed any cobwebs from the path. The idea of being laughed and pointed at as the cobweb remover was just anathema to us. So much so that we had to come up with ingenious tricks to pick someone and force them to fulfil that role. One of these tricks was to agree, when we played games such as hide-and-seek, Statue or Hopscotch (which we called pousse-pion), that the loser would be the cobweb remover the following morning.

I smiled as I remembered all this a few days ago. My outlook on many things relating to my childhood has radically changed, and my perception of the notion of cobweb remover is a case in point. I now view it as a positive concept. Far from being mocked and ridiculed, this role should be praised, cherished and applauded.

Make no mistake about it: no matter how gilded, pleasant or wonderful your life is, you will need a cobweb remover sooner or later. Life cobwebs are the challenges, fears and doubts hindering your personal development and the achievement of your goals. Some are so crippling and overwhelming that they are effortlessly identifiable and, paradoxically, easier to start tackling. For once you identify and acknowledge a problem, you can begin to devise and implement a strategy to overcome it.

Other life cobwebs are more subtle and insidious and, consequently, trickier to tackle. More often than not, you will need someone else to not only perceive but also start to confront them. You will need a cobweb remover.

What triggered my smile a few days back was a sense of relief and gratitude, as I realised that a lady, whom I hardly knew, had unwittingly acted as my cobweb remover. She and I met when we were both selected as mentors in a leadership development programme for young African women. She e-mailed me the same day, expressing interest in learning more about my leadership and personal development Beth and Sylvieprogramme, which is inspired by the Bantu life philosophy. I e-mailed her back a few hours later, and sent her a copy of the first chapter of my manuscript – about 5,000 words!

I regretted doing this as soon as I pressed the ‘send’ button. I felt that I had, once more, failed to take the time to get to know someone before sharing with them things they could find too intense, uninteresting, perplexing, boring or even offensive. This has happened to me on so many occasions that nowadays, I often strive to abide by a self-imposed ‘no wave, no weight’ policy: unless I have checked that an individual and I are truly on the same wavelength, I should not make them endure my deep thoughts.

Obviously, I miserably failed to follow this rule in the case of my fellow leadership mentor. But I needn’t have worried. Not only did she get back to me with one of the most positive feedbacks my programme had ever received. She also shared with me so many inner feelings, and revealed such a deep identification with, and understanding of, the Bantu teachings that I felt as though I had reconnected with a long-lost best friend. Furthermore, we met up last week, and agreed to design and implement concrete projects together.

Personal development is, like life, a journey, a constant process, not an event. It lasts as long as you are alive. Beth, for that’s the name of this wonderful lady, has turned out to be a cobweb remover on my path to personal development. I am grateful to her because she has removed a huge cobweb from my path: the insidious fear of spontaneous human exchanges that had been gnawing at me for some years now. She has restored my faith in the marvellous power of honest and yes, deep conversations with people you barely know.

By Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell         Contact Sylvie





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Mandela Day Project Launch 18 July 2017


MandelaWe are delighted to invite you to the public presentation of Lead4Hope  on Mandela Day (18th July). Lead4Hope is a project that aims to promote the social engagement of young people in Medway, South East England.

The youths will receive one public speaking and leadership training session per month, to be delivered by the CEO of Medzan Training.


  • Debbie Ariyo OBE, Director, Africans Unite Against Child Abuse
  • Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell, Director, Policy Centre for African Peoples
  • Rehman Chishti MP (Chair) Member of Parliament for Gillingham and Rainham


Date: 18th July 2017


Time: 6.30 pm to 8.30 pm


Venue: House of Commons


Further details to follow.

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Discover Your Roadmap to Success -12 July 2016 -7pm London EC2A 3EA

Photo of Sylvie Aboa-BradwellJoin Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell in the City on 12th July 2016 to discover how you can improve your professional development in 6 simple steps.

Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell is a multi-award-winning entrepreneur, think tank founder, writer and international speaker. Her company, Medzan Training, specialises in providing professionals with innovative and effective techniques to help them fulfil their career goals.

At this workshop you will learn:

  • How to identify and overcome your weaknesses
  • How you can boost your self-confidence and resilience
  • And how you can use 6 simple steps to become more resourceful, adaptable and effective.

Also speaking at the event will be:

Photo of Keith BoyfieldKeith Boyfield
CEO of the City firm Keith Boyfield Associates (event’s Chair)
Photo of Martin Armitage-SmithMartin Armitage-Smith
CEO, Cedar Tree Coaching

Date: Tuesday 12th July 2016

Time: 7pm -9pm

Location: Amnesty International HRAC, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London EC2A 3EA

Price: £15 (including light refreshments)

Registration: Click here to book your seat

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My Roadmap to Success by Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell

When I tell people that I am, at once, a leadership and self-development trainer, a writer publishing works in English, Spanish and French, a think tank founder and director, an educator and international speaker, as well as a mother of 2 teenage children (one of them with ADHD), some usually look at me with scepticism, others, admiration, and some others, envy.

Scepticism because, at first sight, it may seem that nobody can successfully do so many things at once. Admiration because some people may assume that I am a superwoman with an extraordinary ability to undertake many tasks at once. Envy because some individuals may think that I have just been lucky.

In truth, I deserve none of the above feelings. For there is a simple, very simple explanation for my “impossible feats”, or “extraordinary ability”, or “luck”, or whatever you want to call it.

At the risk of revealing that I am no longer a spring chicken, I will tell you that for well over 25 years now, I have been applying a very simple 6-step programme I created to achieve all my goals.

It enabled me to overcome my ADHD and graduate with top marks at a prestigious Cameroonian university, though I come from a family of poor Cameroonian villagers. It helped me surmount the linguistic barrier when I arrived in Spain in 1994, as an illegal migrant who could barely utter a few words in Spanish. It did so to the extent that by the time I left in 2002, I had several degrees and diplomas from the Complutense University of Madrid, including a Master of Philosophy, and many pieces of writing published in Spanish.

It helped me when I arrived (legally) in the UK in 2002. I could hardly speak English then. But within a few years, I had managed to work for several high profile organisations, create a think tank, publish several essays, short stories and books in English and gain access to mainstream UK media, while also having and raising my children.

Furthermore, it gave me the strength and inspiration to create a company, to mitigate the negative impact of the 2008 economic downturn on my family (my husband, a tile and stone trader, lost almost all his American, Arab and European customers). Furthermore, it enabled me to overcome the sudden loss of my mentor and godfather of my daughter, Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem. He was killed in a traffic accident in 2009, at the young age of 48. His death affected me so much that for a while, I took refuge in eating and became obese. But within a year, I had pulled myself together, and lost dozens of kilos, going from size 20 to my current size 8.

My 6-step programme towards the achievement of my goals has never let me down. Indeed, it has proved extremely successful so often that I call it my roadmap to success.

I will tell you more about it in my next post.


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