How I Overcame My Fear of Public Speaking and Became a Coach

Public speaking expert Lisa Wentz
Public speaking expert Lisa Wentz

Most of us at some point in our lives have experienced the heart racing panic associated with stage fright. The experience of stage fright typically stems from an unrealistic expectation for perfection and fear of judgement. This panic can range from slight nervousness to a debilitating fear lasting several days before an event. For some, the experience is so anxiety provoking they choose to avoid public speaking altogether.

I’m often asked how I overcame my own fear of public speaking. The truth is, like many others, I haven’t.

I’m simply on a journey of reducing it. When I step on stage to deliver a speech, I am always nervous. The degree to which I’m nervous may vary depending on the audience, my mindset, and the topic. But it’s always there— just under the surface — reminding me that I’m a person who cares deeply about what I share with the world and how I share it.

I’ve learned to embrace these feelings of nervousness as a part of being human. I’ve also learned that working through self-doubt, anxiety, and developing public speaking skills is part of my development as a person. When I changed my mindset from seeing my nervousness as a weakness to seeing it as an opportunity for personal growth, I began to greatly reduce my anxiety, which opened the door for acting training and eventually teaching public speaking.

After years of teaching in drama conservatories and earning an M.A. in vocal pedagogy, I decided to open a coaching practice dedicated to helping others overcome blocks, develop their voices, and polish their talks. I always start by addressing my client’s mindset and removing any false beliefs standing in their way.

Here are some strategies you can apply to start your journey today:

Develop a healthy public speaking mindset

Replace common false beliefs with more realistic, esteem boosting thoughts. Thoughts such as “I don’t know this topic enough” can be replaced with “I was asked to speak because I have valuable knowledge to share,” or replace “the audience is judging me” with “the audience is rooting for me. They’ve all been there before and know how hard it is.” Finally, and this is most important, remove the belief that it matters what the audience thinks of you personally. Your job is to clearly articulate your message. Whether the audience likes you or not is secondary to your content.

Join a public speaking class or club

There are several groups you can join to practice your public speaking skills. Classes offer supportive, structured environments where you can learn tools to reduce anxiety and practice speaking in front of others. In most cities you can find Toastmasters chapters, community college courses, and meet-ups focused on public speaking. Like any other skill, the more you practice the less intimidating it becomes. I suggest visiting a couple different groups to see which feels right to you. Choosing a group that is supportive and fun can do wonders for alleviating anxiety.  

“Grace Under Pressure: A Masterclass in Public Speaking”

Create a reliable road map for your talk

I’ll use a basic presentation format to illustrate this point. You have an introduction, problem, solution, and conclusion. After writing out or bullet pointing your speech, assign simple achievable goals to each section. For instance, you can assign an objective to sincerely welcome your audience in your introduction. The next objective is to clearly articulate problems.

Check out the tools that helped influencer Laurie Harder become an epic public speaker after overcoming anxiety.

Then move to your solution with the intent of convincing your listeners you’ve done the work to move forward. Finally, your conclusion ties your findings together. Regardless of what type of speech you are giving and how large your audience is, creating a reliable road map is an essential part of preparation. It will help you focus on the task at hand and alleviate any worry of losing your place.

Stay present with your audience

It might be tempting to judge how the talk is going by trying to observe yourself in the moment. This only serves to increase your chances of losing your train of thought. Nothing should interfere with your direct connection to your audience. Stay present and focused on your message.

Breathe, breathe, breathe!

The fastest and most effective way to reduce nervousness, shed excess tension, and focus your thoughts on delivery, is to warm up with breathing exercises. I recommend using long deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose and out through the mouth. When you breathe out, make the sound of a long, sustained S. Six to eight slow deep breaths 30 minutes before your speech is ideal. Once you are delivering your speech, continue to breathe deeply between thoughts and during pauses. This will help you focus and slow down your pacing.

As you practice the above tips and exercises, remember to fairly assess your progress, not to judge or criticize yourself. Criticism stops you from evolving. Critiquing on the other hand is a fair assessment that allows you to build your skill set.

Lisa Wentz is a public speaking expert who coaches executives and managers from Fortune 500 companies and the non-profit sector. Her new book, “Grace Under Pressure: A Masterclass in Public Speaking” (LID Publishing) is available now in the U.S.

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