Five years ago, The Guilty Feminist herself, Deborah Frances-White, challenged me to write and teach a workshop that would empower people from all kinds of backgrounds to take up space and use their voice. We hashed out a plan to democratise and make accessible the kind of corporate training that is usually only available in rarefied spaces to already successful people.
Big Speeches was born and since 2017 I have had the immense privilege of helping people face their fear of public speaking. I have held the hands of the shaking and cheered on the tearful as they all pushed through barriers of limiting self-beliefs. I have learned more than I could ever teach and seen more courage than I could ever convey. But that won’t stop me sharing six lessons – some taught by me and some learned from working with hundreds of nervous public speakers.
1. You are not alone
Experts estimate that a fear of public speaking or ‘glossophobia’ may affect up to 77% of the population. That’s a lot of people having a truly horrendous time when called to speak at conferences, social occasions, special events and in all kinds of workplaces. If you are a sufferer perhaps your hands shake, your knees tremble and your mouth dries. Maybe your head swims and your voice wavers. Symptoms can range from irritating – ‘What’s wrong with me? This is ridiculous!’ – through to debilitating – ‘I don’t want to put myself forward/I can’t share my research/I mustn’t speak up’ – to downright traumatic.
I am reminded of one woman who told me that in a room full of colleagues on a Wednesday afternoon she thought she was actually going to die, there and then, giving a presentation – her last words being something about quarterly figures. I have met an astounding number of deeply intelligent, sensitive, highly capable people like her with similar experiences, so let go of any shame you might have or feelings of failure, because…
2. It’s not your fault
Why do our bodies seemingly betray us like this in our hour of need – going to pieces right when we want to be seen as calm, composed and a safe, non-shaky pair of hands? Well, it is actually the body doing its job a little too well as I learned from Deborah in our founding conversations. When we face a group of people, it can trigger a set of responses that is essentially an evolutionary hangover. We have a natural aversion to being outnumbered and scrutinised. After all, back on the savannah 10,000 years ago, this scenario usually meant we were lunch. A biochemical cascade of adrenaline and cortisol is unleashed in these situations to make you run and keep you safe. It’s not your fault, but you are the one who suffers for it.
3. Speak kindly to yourself
So, how do you override this impulse that has evolved over thousands of years for the survival of the species? Well, I don’t advise doing what people often do, which is to berate yourself with the kind of admonishments you would never say to a friend in a million years but have no problem piling on to yourself. Telling yourself, ‘You’re an embarrassment,’ or ‘you need to get it together,’ or the biggest lie of all, ‘You’re the only one who feels like this,’ won’t help anyone.
This brutal self-talk will compound your stress, not dissipate it. I encourage clients to befriend the impulse, to thank it for trying to keep you safe, but to tell it there are no lions or tigers or bears today. Even repeating ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’ in your mind will do more for your heart rate than being hard on yourself. Remember, you have done nothing wrong! You are showing up and the more you do that, the more your body will become attuned to these situations and the weaker the response from your central nervous system will be as your body learns this is a safe situation, not a fight or flight one.
4. Be selfish in order to be generous
This was said to me at drama school by the principal who noticed I never took centre stage. I would hover off to the side, thinking I was being generous to my fellow actors when actually, keeping myself to myself was far from a generous act.
One of the biggest areas of my coaching is helping people put forward their ideas. In my experience many people, especially women, believe that if they haven’t come up with the best, most unimpeachable plan or bullet-proof idea there is no point in offering it up. Here’s the thing: you might have two-thirds of a great idea. You might have a spark of a plan. If you bring it up in a meeting, someone may be able to build on it. If you have nothing to say, that’s fine. Listening is at least as important. But don’t hide your talent and insight because you are holding yourself to some impossible standard. Not knowing everything doesn’t stop Tristan or Geoffrey wading in with their two cents, does it? Don’t think of taking space as hogging the mic or the spotlight. Think of it as allowing others to see and receive you. That is being truly generous with yourself.
5. Acknowledge the unexpected
Drop your notes? Fine. Wrong projection slide comes up during your presentation? Not a bother. As long as you acknowledge what has happened, your audience can move on. If you refuse to acknowledge a noticeable stumble, the audience gets stuck in that moment rather than hearing what you’re saying.
Audiences ultimately want to be free from concern. That’s all. They want you to succeed, for their own comfort as much as yours. Letting people in on your process and showing them that you’re OK with the odd fluff or mishap makes you look like a fearless badass.
Let’s say your mind goes blank. You can say, “Apologies folks, bear with me, I’ve lost my thread… has that ever happened to you? What was I saying… ah yes…” When you meet these unforeseen moments with peace rather than panic because you realise they are just that, moments, nothing will faze you and your audience will relax and engage with what you have to say.
6. Everyone is better than they think
Truly. Imposter syndrome can colonise thinking patterns, making us feel unworthy and useless despite stacks of evidence to the contrary. While it is no fun, it is a clear sign you are not a sociopath! Not everyone without imposter syndrome is a sociopath of course, but no sociopath suffers from it. Silver lining! I thought my job was to make people better at public speaking but actually, it is to reveal the unique, compelling orator that was there all along. With the right guidance, we all have it in us. Whether it was a rough childhood experience such as reading aloud to a chorus of sniggers at school or undiagnosed dyslexia, so many are carrying trauma around this subject and it needs to be met with empathy and support, first and foremost, from yourself.
Speak up. Speak out. Remember if you are not part of the conversation, you cannot change the conversation. Now more than ever we need agents for change from diverse backgrounds. We need to hear from the marginalised. We need to amplify the unheard. If none of this applies to you and you are well able to command a room then think to yourself: who can you advocate for? A speech can change your life. Your voice could change the world.