This is my story of why I vowed abstention from public speaking because of Russia, and how a business improv class at Fuqua changed all that while helping me overcome my lifelong fear of performing on stage.

The Origin of My Fear

“Is Russia part of Asia?” I kept wondering to myself, once upon a time in my third-grade geography class. I saw the world map and couldn’t help but ask all these questions as kids do. Only one problem—I was afraid to ask my teacher. She was not mean by any means (pun intended). Asking questions was just not part of a class session where I went to school in Vietnam. You wouldn’t be rewarded for participation, maybe except with a nerdy reputation.

I fought with myself for days. Mind you, I had held a girl’s hand in second grade and that was so much easier than this! Finally, my curiosity won over my fear. I summoned the courage to raise my hand. My teacher, slightly puzzled, allowed me to speak. The whole class turned back to look at me. My heart was racing the entire time. I asked my (fateful) question.

With a laugh, she asked, “What does Russia have anything to do with this class?” My classmates all erupted in laughter. I quickly sat down and didn’t look up the entire time. I just ‘lost face.’ Humiliated, shamed, mortified.

I vowed to never speak up again. What would be the point? I wouldn’t gain anything and I’d surely look stupid in front of everyone.

Then I came to the U.S. to do my undergraduate studies. There was not one syllabus that did not clearly spell out a class participation grade. Professors would even cold call me if I tried to hide. How terrifying!

I tried to speak, but my heart would be racing long before and long after I spoke—if I spoke at all. Every class was a struggle between trying to earn good grades and not having a heart attack. I would feel exhausted every day.

It got worse at Fuqua. My classmates were so articulate and confident. They seemed to even enjoy speaking up?! To make it even more comedic, my professor cold called me on my very first day of class at Fuqua. It was my third-grade geography class all over again.

It was a vicious cycle. I would pressure myself to think of something insightful so that I would sound intelligent when I spoke. Inevitably, I would overthink things and tense up. When it is was my turn to speak, I felt like classmates could tell that I was nervous. Eventually, I would tell myself I can compensate by doing well on the exam instead.

Until I took improv class. It changed my life.

four students on stage, facing the crowd during business improv class
My teammates and I playing the “Good, Bad, Worse” game on stage. We took turns providing good advice, bad advice, and a worse advice to questions asked by the audience.

What is Business Improv at Fuqua?

Workshop in Managerial Improvisation is a week-long class where you practice thinking on your feet and applying the “yes, and” principle. When you “yes, and” you accept your partner’s idea no matter how silly and then expand on it. A simple, yet powerful tool to remove judgment and grow your creativity.

Throughout a series of games and exercises, my classmates and I built trust so that we could think, speak, and act in an extremely supportive environment. There was absolutely no pressure to sound smart or be cool.

You just need to be present. Be in the moment. Carpe diem.

The first day, we broke the ice by carrying each member around the classroom on our shoulders. You had to focus because your classmates were entrusting themselves to you. My turn to be carried came, and it felt strangely reassuring knowing that my new friends had my back. Literally.

It was so liberating, knowing I was not alone. Most of my improv classmates were also international students who shared the same struggle as me. At that moment, I knew I made the right decision to take the class.

The next few days flew by. We had so much fun playing silly games where everyone surprised themselves with their newfound quick-wittedness. Deep down, we unlocked ourselves from fear of judgment. Everyone truly wanted to listen when you talked or watch you reenact a movie scene that you like.

My favorite exercise had us present using premade Powerpoint slides that we had not previously seen. We found ourselves coming up with a go-to-market strategy on the fly for a random combination of a landline phone, sunflower, and cheese. My teammates Hilary, Dvir, and I creatively “yes, anded” the crap out of that presentation. We even improvised a TV commercial for the product.

To “yes, and” is to be present. Focus and listen intensely. You are here, physically and mentally.

The Final Presentation

I felt comfortable speaking to my teammates, but what about the whole improv class? On the last day, we all had to perform on stage in Geneen Auditorium in front of everyone. I signed up as the emcee for our team. I was to facilitate a slightly complicated game called Survivor, which involved audience participation. I needed to not only speaking clearly but also in a way that energized the crowd and got them to participate. So many questions raced through my head as I practiced emceeing.

Finally, our turn to perform came. We ran up to the stage making noises and clapping loudly to pump up the crowd. I couldn’t have asked for a better audience than my improv classmates. They cheered as loudly and enthusiastically as possible.

The clapping stopped and the spotlight turned to me. All eyes were on me to start the show. Would it be third grade all over again?

Strangely enough, I felt no fear. My lifelong fear evaporated, just like that.

I was just focusing on what I was doing. I spoke loudly and clearly to my audience, with excitement as if I had known them for a long time.

Sensing my confidence, they responded enthusiastically. The audience became more and more entertained after each round. They broke into a gigantic applause when we finished and took a bow. What a scene!

As I reflected on the week that was, I still couldn’t believe that my first time on stage was so successful. It was all thanks to improv professor Bob Kulhan and our group instructor, Cesar Jaime. I was so inspired that I joined the Fuqua Improv Club and registered for more management communication courses that involved public speaking.

While fun, many of the improv exercises prepare you for real business situations when you have to present without much practice. In fact, I saw the results of my improv training that same week. I aced an interview and was selected for a mentored study with a local sports technology company, thanks partly to the insights from improv.

ten students on stage, arms raised, during business improv class
Our team celebrating after our final performance, just before leaving the stage

Three Takeaways from the Course

  1. Focus, focus, focus. Today’s world is highly distracting, and you need to focus to become a good listener. Only then you can adapt, motivate, and inspire. Before any class or stage performance, our team had a ritual where we got together to warm up and refocus.
  2. To “yes, and” is to acknowledge your partner’s point. Too often we only perfunctorily acknowledge something in order to get to our point by saying “yes, but.” Improv instills in you the importance of truly listening by starting with acknowledgment and then expanding on your partner’s idea.
  3. Have fun. I enjoyed every moment of this week-long 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. course. If I had a chance to do it again, I would in a heartbeat. I became much closer to my teammates during the experience and am still very grateful for their support.

I came to Fuqua to train myself to be a future leader. Improv set me on the right path to becoming just that—more focused, adaptable, and inspirational. To those who find public speaking terrifying, I hope my story inspires you to face your fear head-on. I conquered my fear. Can you?