Public Speaking: Facing Down Fear | #LatimerAt20

This is the fifth in a series of short essays written by CEO and Founder Dean Brenner to commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Latimer Group. In this series, Dean will share his reflections on, and learnings from, the last two decades.

Today’s topic is management of the stress and emotions that, for many, often surrounds public speaking. Earlier in our anniversary series, we published an animated short story that briefly discussed this topic, and the reaction we received to that story was noticeably stronger than normal. In fact, several readers of this blog wrote directly to ask us for a deeper dive on the topic. 

So here we go… let’s dive deeper. 

— 

Tangible stress… Outright nervousness… Full-blown anxiety… 

Speaking in public, leading the conversation or having the spotlight on us can cause many to feel something on this spectrum. The fear can be significant, constant and in some cases debilitating.

This topic comes up all the time in our workshops and coaching. It is so predictable, that we often build it directly into our training, and address the topic head on. And it almost always comes up privately in one-on-one conversations. The community of people who feel something on the stress-nervousness-anxiety emotional spectrum is a big group. Big emotions around public speaking are more than just “normal.” They are so common, they should almost be expected.

So let’s talk about how to deal with these emotions. 

But before we dive into strategies and solutions, let’s get two pieces of “bad news” immediately out of the way.

First, there is no quick fix. There is no magic pill, no easy “lose 30 pounds in 30 minutes” plan that can be sold on late night television. Successful management of these emotions happens over time, with self-awareness, intentional planning and practice. 

Second, no one can do the work for us. Others can support and guide us. But we each must do the work for ourselves.

OK… that’s the bad news. But now let’s pivot because there is a “glass half full” element to this discussion as well. And there are tangible things we can do to keep the emotions in check.

Mindset

One question I get asked all the time is this: “can you help make my nervousness go away?” Unfortunately, the answer to that is “no, I can’t.” No one can make your nervousness simply go away. But a good process (perhaps supported by a good coach), can help make sure nervousness does not get in the way. That’s the correct mindset. Don’t spend energy on how to make it go away. Spend energy thinking about how to make sure it does not get in the way. Manage it. Don’t spend energy trying to eliminate it. This is an important distinction. This mindset is more realistic, and once we adopt this correct mindset, we are on our way to a better place. 

Behaviors

In every success story I have ever seen or contributed to, there have been two behaviors consistently present: preparation and practice. If we want to keep our fears about the spotlight in check, we must prepare, and we must practice. And, by the way, those two behaviors are not the same thing. 

Let’s take these one at a time:

1. Thoughtful preparation.

If you look at the way any elite performer (athlete, singer, actor, dancer) executes their performance, you will have a hard time finding one that has not done a great deal of preparation. Almost every athlete you will ever meet or watch, thinks about, plans, and prepares for their performance. Yes, there are immediate in-the-moment reactions or moves that elite athletes execute all the time. But that ability to react at a high-level in the moment is almost always based on intentional planning and preparation for what might happen. Their elite preparation allows them to perform in a seemingly instinctual, immediate manner.

The speakers who seem to be able to speak easily “off the cuff,” without any outward sense of stress, are almost always the ones who have done a healthy amount of preparation. They might seem like they are speaking easily and extemporaneously. But trust me… they aren’t. They might not be working from exact notes. But they know generally where they are trying to go, and have a plan in place. 

Preparation is thinking about what you want to achieve, what your audience might care about or ask you, what you want or need to say, what you want or need to not say. Preparation is thinking about a message plan, a Q&A plan, and a follow-up plan.

I have been coaching professionals like you for twenty years. And I can tell you with absolute, 100% conviction, that some level of preparation will not only lead you to a better outcome. But your preparation will also give you a sense of confidence. And that is a critical step in your ability to make sure these negative emotions don’t get in your way.

2. Intentional practice.

Let’s go back to those elite performers that we marvel at all the time. You can’t get good at anything without practicing it. If you study the backstory of any singer or actor or dancer, every one of them will tell you stories about the significant amount of time they spent practicing their craft. If we want to be good at doing something, we have to practice that something.

But when it comes to public speaking, the typical professional does not have unlimited time to practice their presentations or rehearse the things they want to say in the meeting. We all have lots of things we need to be good at to be successful in our work. So while the elite actor spent years expressly focused on improvement of their craft (and probably waiting tables to make ends meet in the meantime), the typical professional has to make those improvements while managing lots of other business needs. 

Practice is speaking out loud, in front of another human being, or recorded in some way. It is not just staring at your notes. And even though we don’t have a ton of extra time, some practice is required. Look for those little moments, in the car, in the shower, for 5-6 minutes in your office with the door closed. And maximize that time. Repetition reduces discomfort.

If we want a better golf swing, we have to swing. If we want to speak better and more comfortably, then we have to speak. Obvious? I have twenty years of experience that tells me this is not as obvious as it should be.

Preparation and practice are absolutely essential to being good at this skill. And they are equally essential to making sure our emotions don’t get in the way.

Management Strategy

Finally, even when we have the correct mindset in place, and even when we are exhibiting the correct behaviors in our planning, we still are likely to need specific strategies to manage our emotions, and make sure they don’t get in our way. Because for many of us, the mindset and the behaviors are usually not enough. And this is the step that, in my experience, most people skip entirely. 

This last piece will be a very personal process, because it requires that we understand a bit about the origin of our anxiety. Some people are worried about making a mistake. Some are worried about sounding stupid. Some get paralyzed by the risk of the moment. Some just hate the spotlight. 

We need to understand the source of our emotions. When we do, we have a much better chance of managing those emotions.

A little transparency about my own journey will help me make my point. The source of my nervousness (which is always there, by the way, and sometimes explodes into full-blown anxiety) is a set of experiences from my childhood: trying to live up to the unrealistic standards of a demanding father who was wrestling with his own demons, and didn’t manage them very well. Our relationship became highly competitive very early in my life, and his method of competition was aggressive and critical of my every move. I am sure he believed he was acting out of love. But throughout my formative years, all I heard was “you aren’t good enough.” So when my nervousness kicks in, it always comes with a male voice in my head screaming at me that my performance stinks. 

So, for me, I need to manage that voice. After lots of years of trying different things, I now deal with that voice head on. Ignoring it didn’t work. Now when it shows up, I talk to it, and let it know that it is not welcome today. And I find other voices that I can replace it with. I actively seek out others in my life – usually my wife Emily, but sometimes others – with whom I feel comfortable. A short “you got this” from a trusted voice helps me ignore the toxic voice.

In addition, I rely on deep breathing, positive self-talk, and pictures of my kids… looking at them reminds me that my ability to manage my own emotions will make me a better role model.

Feel free to borrow from or be inspired by my strategy. But make no mistake about it… you need to create your own, something that works for you. And if you can identify the source of your emotions, you will have a higher likelihood of keeping those emotions in check.

Good luck on your journey. Know that you are not alone. The “Spotlight Anxiety” group has many members. But while it is likely impossible to make your negative emotions go away, we can all take several steps to make sure that those emotions don’t get in our way.

That’s what I have learned. I hope it helps.

Have a great day.

As we continue to share our #LatimerAt20 insights on a weekly basis, you can access the full anniversary series here.

Comments

2 responses to “Public Speaking: Facing Down Fear | #LatimerAt20”

  1. Michael Colton says:

    Very helpful – thank you very much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Corporation’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.