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Q&A: How did you get over your fear of public speaking?

Did you go to a class or group to learn how to speak well in public? I am trying to start my own business and need to speak to advertise at different groups and I get violently ill. Not a good trait for an entrepreneur! I’ve attended your seminars at conventions and wonder how you started with public speaking. -Lisa

Hi, Lisa! Can I just encourage you that I know almost exactly how you feel?

In fact, it’s really quite comical that I (of all people!) am answering a question on public speaking. You see, ten or twelve years ago, public speaking would have been first on my list of “Things I Dread With a Vengeance”.

The handful of times I had to do a tiny little bit of public speaking in the first 21 years of my life, I was absolutely paralyzed with fear ahead of time. I’d be sick to my stomach. Not able to sleep. Not able to think about much else — for weeks before each little speaking gig! And each of those handful of times I got up to give my little speech, it was very poorly executed and I was visibly shaken.

After I got married, I decided I’d avoid public speaking if at all possible since I loathed it so much. This stance worked pretty well for about seven years. And I figured that, as it stood, I was on track to being able to pretty much always avoid having to make a fool of myself in front of a crowd again.

Facing My Most Dreaded Fear

But that all changed about three and a half years ago. I was asked to speak on a panel at a blogging conference. I love blogging and talking about marketing and blog strategy, so the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn’t think a panel would be all that bad. So I said “yes” — even though it was outside my comfort zone.

Three months later, I found I was slated for the panel plus the opening night keynote session!!! Talk about having a panic attack.

I’d never given more than a five-minute talk before, so I’m not sure what possessed me to go through with the keynote. But I did it — and I’m so glad I did now, even though I read the entire talk word for word, shook the whole time, and it can rightly be classified as one of the worst speeches ever delivered.

None of that mattered when I was finished though. Because I had done it. I had faced my most dreaded fear in the face and I HAD BEATEN IT!

Maybe I’d just barely survived. But I had survived. And that gave me hope, excitement, and amazing courage.

{That’s me giving my very first talk at the conference I mentioned above. I don’t think I really moved from behind the podium and I mostly gripped it for dear life the whole time!}

Learning to Enjoy Public Speaking

In addition, something crazy happened when I stepped off that platform: I realized that public speaking no longer seemed like the most awful thing in the world. In fact, there was a tiny part of me that actually enjoyed it.

As God began opening up more doors for me to speak, my husband and I both felt this was His leading… so I started slowly saying “yes” to a few opportunities. Each time, I was shaking in my boots. But each time, it got a little better and a little better. And, as the opportunities continued to come in, it fueled my desire to practice and hone the skill of public speaking.

The past three years have been a journey of growth and stretching for me. Stepping outside my comfort zone, making mistakes, and learning as I go.

I’m far from arrived and still have much to improve upon when it comes to my public speaking skills, but I actually now look forward to each opportunity and find so much joy in standing up and sharing what I’m passionate about with others. That’s downright amazing progress for a gal who used to avoid public speaking at all costs!

Here are some things I’ve learned in the past three years:

Just Do it — And Keep Doing It

This sounds ridiculously simple — and it is! — but it’s true: The best way to become a speaker is to just go out there and speak.

Accept just about every opportunity that comes your way — whether it’s speaking at the nursing home, giving a little talk to a group of children, teaching a class at the local community center, or sharing at a small women’s group. The more you can be in front of audiences practicing your material and trying new approaches, the better.

Practice, Practice, Practice

When you are first starting out as a speaker, practice more than feels necessary. I try to practice new talks from start to finish at least two to three times before delivering them. This includes using my slides, keeping my notes where I plan to keep them, and having a live audience.

Yes, you need to practice in front of a live audience of at least one or two people (preferably someone who will make you feel uncomfortable). I promise you’ll be glad you did!

Attend a Speaking Conference

Attending the She Speaks Intensive in January was one of the best things I’ve ever done as a blogger. Not only did I get to sit under amazing speakers and learn from them, but I also met Michele Cushatt (my speaking coach — more on her in a moment), got connected with Brian Scheer & Joy Groblebe (who have mentored me over the past seven months and recently became my managers — so thrilled to be working with them!), and met Ruth, Angie, Kathi, and Renee — dear, dear women who have all become close friends.

So yes, attending a speaking conference was right up there at the top of my list of Best Things I’ve Done As a Blogger! 🙂

By the way, if you’re looking for a speaking conference to attend, I’ve heard amazing things about the SCORRE conference and plan to attend it in 2014.

Hire a Coach

As I said a minute ago, I met Michele Cushatt at the She Speaks Intensive. I hired her as my speech coach shortly thereafter and she’s changed my entire approach to speech preparation.

Michele quickly taught me that I was going about things all wrong. You see, blogging and speech writing are two entirely different things — but I was trying to go about them in the same way. And that’s why it wasn’t working!

From Michele’s coaching, I’ve learned how to start with one key message I want people to leave with and how to clearly flesh that message out in a way that will resonate with my audience. She’s helped me pare down my massive lists of things I want to share in one talk and just hone in on a few major things.

The thing I love most about working with Michele is that she serves as a fantastic sounding board for me. We usually spend about an hour on the phone going over each new talk I develop. She listens to what I want to convey, challenges me on points she thinks are weak, and encourages me to dig deeper as a storyteller.

Having a speech coach has made a major difference in the quality of my speeches and it’s given me much greater confidence in my delivery. I can’t recommend a coach highly enough!

Ask for Critiques

Once you’ve gotten some practice under your belt, ask a few people you trust to sit in on your talks and give you candid feedback. Liz, my road manager, sits in on every single talk I give. Because she gets to hear the same talks over and over again (bless her!), she can give me invaluable feedback each time.

We usually have a debrief at the end of every speaking engagement. She gives me honest thoughts on what parts of the talk worked well and where I can improve. Having this input has been incredibly helpful!

For more advice, I highly recommend watching Chris LoCurto’s short video on how to become a better speaker. The trick he shares here really works!

What advice and encouragement do the rest of you have for Lisa? I’d love to hear!


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33 Comments

  • Amy f;) says:

    You sounded great on the clutter interrupted interview! 🙂

  • Katie D. says:

    Even though I HATE public speaking , here is my advice:

    Be humble and open to constructive criticism.

    I get defensive when anyone tries to give me any pointers and therefore it takes a lot to get me to improve. If I was open to the feedback from the get go – I’d improved much faster!

  • Ramona Nowak says:

    Great tips mentioned. I think that even practicing in front of a few friends or family can help. Videotape yourself if needed. There are toastmaster groups that can help too if you have one in your area.

    • Crystal says:

      I’ve heard great things about Toastmasters!

      And yes, practice in front of your family members or a few friends. My husband is often my live audience for speech prep. Just having someone watching me really helps me to prepare better than practicing by myself would.

    • Video recording yourself is excellent. You can also simply practice in front of a mirror. It’s both humbling and telling, if you can stomach it. 😉

  • Theres says:

    I have found it helpful to type or write out everything I need to say word for word, then practice and scale down my notes to bullet points on an index card over time. If I have what I want to say clearly in my head, it comes out much better.

    If my seminar is interactive, I will add time markers in the margin so we stay on track. Also, if I am asking questions, I will write down some sample answers in my notes just in case the crowd is quiet.

    Lastly, don’t forget to be yourself. People can tell if you are trying to present as someone you aren’t and won’t take you seriously. I try to remember, the group asked me to speak…quirks and all! =)

  • Mary says:

    Just as some food for thought for your children when they come of age, there is a forensic homeschool league National Christian Forensic Association (NCFCA). They hold competitions in speech and debate. Public speaking is a powerful tool and an area that I have not mastered……didn’t want my children to be fearful of presentations, hence we participated. It was worthwhile for us.

  • Being knowledgeable of the subject you are talking about really helps too (and knowing what your limitations are). When I worked in SW Sales, I often had to travel and lead presentations to customers. I would start with an ice-breaker exercise before digging into the “meat” of the presentation, which would help greatly. I would be able to answer high-level business related questions, but if the questions got deeply technical I would defer to my technical specialist to assist.
    The “fear” of speaking really doesn’t go away…but I would push through and thrive off the adrenaline instead of thinking of it as a negative thing. I often got comments from peers that I had a lot of energy and was really good at public speaking. So as long as you don’t let on to others that you’re really nervous, they may not even know!

  • Angel says:

    Thanks Crystal for the inspiring post! I would love to be able to attend a conference that you speak at! I love Money Saving Mom!

  • Like Ramona suggested, Toastmasters is a really great option. The company I work for offers Toastmasters as part of our corporate training lineup, and I was in it for a few years. It’s a great environment to learn in. They give you easy-to-understand manuals, and you work through them one speech at a time. The first speech is very short and simple, and you just learn to incorporate new things into your speaking with each new lesson. Every speech receives verbal evaluation, and the evaluators are trained mentors and will always leave you wanting to speak more. Meetings are fun, and you learn great leadership skills during the meetings too. You can find local clubs all over the place, and membership isn’t free, but it’s not too expensive and well worth the price.

  • Belinda says:

    I’m a college professor who has been teaching public speaking for over 20 years. Thank you for writing about this, especially about the difference between speech writing and blog writing. I tell my students what Michele told you – keep it simple. The goal of a speech isn’t to give information; it’s to get the as audience to remember a message and possibly take action. They can only remember so much!! And a simple speech is easier to give! Yay for you!!

  • Meg says:

    I’m a teacher, and I did a lot of speech and debate in high school, so speaking about my blog is something I enjoy.

    My advice is to try to find out as much as you can about your audience. I had one speech go great, and then I did the same one for a different group, and I felt like it really tanked. Later, I realized I should have tailored the talk more to the interests/needs of that second group. Now I try to ask lots of questions so I can plan my talk accordingly.

  • Cindy Shortall says:

    Believe it or not, I conquered my fear of public speaking in high school. I had to make a presentation, and was nervous because I was not very popular. So, I prepared my speech, learned the material inside and out, and then told myself, “you’re in control here. What are these people going to do, throw things at you? I realized that they had to listen to me. I focused on my material and on my audience. I completely forgot about myself. That fear has never returned. I think of speaking as “sharing” something; information, ideas or facts. I focus on what I can give to the audience. It works!

  • MaryAnnDFW says:

    I, too, was scared to death to speak in public but wanted to overcome this fear once and for all. A friend recommended Toastmasters–the best advice I’d ever been given. Toastmasters’ has been around for a long time and its members are extraordinarily supportive (since almost all of them have had the same fear before they joined). Toastmasters’ curriculum not only helps you overcome your fear of speaking, but provides an excellent program to help you learn how to give a talk–everything from choosing a topic and preparing to speak, to eye contact, body language and making a good impression–all done with a group of the friendliest, most supportive people you will ever meet. Most cities have several clubs meeting on different days and at different times–give them a try–guests are ALWAYS welcome!!

  • Heather says:

    I giver presentations for our church and I am also a adjunct faculty member at our local state university. Something that always helps me when I have to speak publicly is to remember YOU are the expert at that moment. People are coming to hear your input, advice, wisdom, knowledge, etc. on a particular topic. They don’t want to see you fail. It gives me confidence to know (after much researching and practicing) that I have something to share with others who want to hear it. Simply remembering I am an expert at that moment gives me the self-assurance to deliver a message. I also try to remember it’s really a conversation-just with more people and maybe less input from the other side. 🙂

  • Olga says:

    Wow, Crystal! Good for you! So many people just avoid the things that they fear, but you didn’t let it stop you.
    Great advice. I really enjoyed reading this post.

  • Well, don’t sell yourself too short Crystal!

    I was at that blogging conference 3 yrs ago and heard you share the keynote. You also came to our table when all speakers were visiting during dinner. I was most blessed by both your time at dinner AND the speech! 🙂 Seriously, the end part has always stayed with me – how you gave glory to God for all of the innovative ideas and things He’s done in your business.

    So! I’m sure you’re glad to have improved from there…but the speech made an impact nonetheless.

  • Jeni L says:

    I highly recommend Toastmasters. It’s a self-paced program where you speak in front of real people and get immediate oral and written feedback. You can attend as many meetings as a guest for free, and the cost of membership is very reasonable (my club charges $85 per year; we meet twice a month). So for the cost of a cup of coffee every month, you can afford Toastmasters!! =) I’ve been in a local club for 5 years and everyone is like family to me.

  • I really don’t like being the center of attention, and speaking is just that! But if I think of it as teaching something or sharing something with others, then it becomes about the message, not about me. It totally helps me to focus on getting the information out there. Honestly, if I didn’t do it, they could get someone else to do it. So I’m not the important part, the message is. This has helped me in sales presentations, training sessions, and even singing in church.

  • Michelle says:

    Great tips! Are you familiar with Toastmasters? It’s a wonderful non-profit organization that helps people improve their public speaking and leadership skills through providing opportunities to practice on a regular basis. Clubs are located worldwide. Visit toastmasters.org to learn more.

  • Kristi says:

    Thanks for sharing your story and tips! Exposure, exposure, exposure! Putting yourself out there is key. As with anything in life, practice makes perfect, or close to it. 🙂 I hope my children don’t grow up to be as shy and insecure as I was (and honestly still am). The earlier you develop the skill of public speaking the better.

  • Carisa says:

    I remember that night! You were amazing!!! 😉

  • Lots and lots of practice. The more times I give the same speech, the better it goes!

  • Guest says:

    I think it’s important to know yourself and what you need to be successful whether it’s speaking in front of a large group or facilitating a meeting. Some people do much better with high level bullets and have a more conversational approach (I fall into this category) but others are more analytical and need a very structured approach or script (I’ve worked with others who fall in this category). I find it extremely stressful to try to speak from a script while I have colleagues who would find it extremely stressful to use a skeleton and flesh it out as they go. Figure out where you fit and then do the work to make it happen!

  • skottydog says:

    I always try to open with a joke or funny anecdote at the beginning of any meeting or presentation. It is quite risky, because if my joke bombs, I’m even more uncomfortable and nervous. However, most times it has served me well and eases the tension for me at the very start. I am usually more relaxed after I’ve made the room laugh.

    The last time I was asked to speak was during a luncheon for a leadership program completion ceremony given by my healthcare organization. There were over 150 people in attendance, including my boss, and the CEO. I hadn’t eaten for days, and was so nervous I was visibly trembling. My opening joke worked, and the tension was gone. But I spent weeks worrying about a 5 minute speech. Silly, but we all do it.

    Crystal, I wasn’t there, but I have the audio from your talk at the Killer Tribes conference a few months ago. You sounded great. Didn’t physically see you, but you sounded very confident and well-prepared.

  • Kelly Cox says:

    Crystal, I’ve been searching your site for all I could find on speaking! I’m hoping to get into speaking and while I’ve done it in my career – I want to do it on my own as a business from home and on topics of the Lord, debt-free living, marriage etc… Biblical homemaking!

    so just wanted to say THANKS! Your site is helping me with lots of tips!

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