How to Overcome Speaking Anxiety: Practicing the Art of Unconditional Recognition

By Sarah McVanel, Chief Recognition Officer, Greatness Magnified

image of a man looking nervous and bitting his nails trying to overcome anxiety“Do you ever get nervous before you’re about to speak?”

A common question. When asked after a speech, it’s a fun question to answer. When just before, it’s kind of like, “Yikes, now that you mention it…”

By yikes, I’m not talking, crawling into the fetal position or reaching for a huge tub of Ben and Jerry’s for support kind of nerves. But sure, from time to time, we all get nervous.

When we reflect on what public speaking is – standing in front of a room full of (mostly) strangers, pouring your brain and sometimes heart out, hoping all your preparation and knowledge will serve – it’s understandable why they say that fear of public speaking is greater than the fear of dying. (Is that really true or just an old wives tale…and given we all live so long, is there even such a thing as an “old wife” in which to have said tale? I digress…)

Most of the time I don’t feel nervous, however I can list every keynote speech where I have been nervous. And nine times out of 10, it was due to this: feeling unprepared. Sure, I worked on my slides, brushed my hair, had a prep call, and 100 other things. What I mean is deep prep: research the issues in the industry, talk to people who work in the company/industry, have a check-in call with the organizers a few days ahead, insisted on that tech check before I hit the stage, researched the company, spoke to previous keynoters, aligned my talk to the theme and conference objectives, and so on. And if you caught the podcast episode with my daughter, you’ll know those things need to happen well ahead of time, being the precrastinator that I am.

So, the answer to “Do you feel nervous?” should be, “Nope, I feel prepared!”

End of story? Well…

If it were that simple, then folks wouldn’t want to donate their lunch to the closest garbage can at the mere thought of holding a microphone.

Let me tell you about Chris.

Shame Leakage

image of a man covering his face in shame trying to overcome anxietyMindfulness teacher and psychologist Dr. Christopher Germer shares in his book “The Mindful Self Compassion Workbook (I highly recommend it), that he had a crushing fear of public speaking. It’s such a bummer for a super successful dude with important things to say!

For him, speaking anxiety was actually a shame disorder. Because the shame was too overwhelming to bear, he continually felt fearful when he thought about approaching a podium to speak. As he puts it:

“Imagine being unable to speak about the topic of mindfulness due to anxiety! I felt like a fraud, incompetent, and a bit stupid. What I discovered on that fateful day was that sometimes – especially when we’re engulfed in intense emotions like shame – we need to hold ourselves before we can hold our moment-to-moment experience.”

After reading this, I thought back to some of the folks who have asked me the question, “Do you ever get nervous?” Many of them held leadership and influencer roles – boards of directors, association presidents, CEOs, directors of sales, heads of HR, training and development consultants, and executive directors. In other words, the question is almost a permission question, “Am I allowed to feel nervous?” Because, after all, if a keynote speaker is nervous, surely they can be too!

No matter who you are – a mindfulness researcher, head of the United Nations, member of an AA group – you can feel how you feel. Nervous, excited, unsure, happy, joyful, fretful… Emotions are signposts. You do not need to scrub yourself of any public speaking nerves, full stop.

“I should not feel nervous” is like saying, “I should not think of the colour red.” What colour are you thinking about right now? Red, right? Same with thinking about public speaking. Are your palms getting clammy? “Don’t let your palms get clammy!” Are they clammier? Darn. This human thing is such a conundrum sometimes.

So, if we, like Dr. C, focused on the shame that he shouldn’t feel, it wouldn’t solve the problem. Conditionally valuing yourselves only if you perform to an extremely high standard is a guaranteed shame amplifier. To feel confident and recognize yourself only when you reach this long laundry list of successful abilities, skills, and attitudes is a tall order (and I’m almost 6 feet…I know tall…and I know expectations!)

Instead, let’s focus on what we do well.

Not only is this more enjoyable, it’s also more attainable. Want some shame-squashing public speaking tips? You’ve got it!

Shame Cleaning Through Self-Recognition

image of words on a screen that say Working on myself, by myself, for myself and a hand with a marker underlining the last line to overcome anxietyBrené Brown describes shame as “I am bad” and guilt as “I did something bad.” Was Dr. C bad because he was a mindfulness teacher and psychologist who feared public speaking? Nope. Did he have anything to feel guilty about? Nope, not that either. The easiest way to cut guilt off at the knees is through self-recognition.

To earn the right to that stage, Dr. C did a Ph.D., wrote a bestselling book (or two), and supervised psychologists in training at Harvard…in other words, shrinking success down to his performance in a few speeches would be to minimize decades of success.

What can Dr. C and any of us do to keep speaking anxiety in perspective? Three things:

  1. Prepare
  2. Care
  3. Be Aware

Prepare so that you feel less worried you won’t know what you’re going into. Prepare so you feel you deserve to be on that stage or in front of that room. Prepare so you have a contingency plan in place.

Care about the people listening to you. Care that you will make an impact. Make it about them and not you. Ditch the ego. Care about how they are feeling, not you.

Be aware of how your body is feeling. Be aware of your pace and cadence. Be aware of the time, and don’t run over. Be aware of what you must do for yourself before, during and after a speech. Make self-care an even more intentional practice, and you know how much and what self-care you need by, you guessed it, being aware.

Let’s dive into this even more deeply.

Mantras with No Shame

Here are some truths that might also help:

  1. A presentation is merely a conversation. And you have those all the time.
  2. Your audience wants you to do well. With only a few exceptions, they expect you will add value to them.
  3. Know the first three sentences cold. Once you easily deliver those, your flight or flight response calms down.
  4. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between excited and anxious, so rub your hands together really fast, creating heat and energy, and say (or think), “I am so excited!” (My friend Nathalie taught me this neuroscience hack.)
  5. Ground yourself in gratitude. You are lucky to be able to talk, you’re lucky to be educated, you’re lucky to be asked to speak, so say “I’m so lucky (fill in the blank)” to stay grateful and graceful.

Self-Care or Self-Neglect

Here is another truth: when I don’t take care of myself leading up to a high-stakes speech, I am more anxious (on the stage and off).

image of the Workplace Wellness article in the CDHA magazine by Sarah McVanelYou might have read an article I wrote not too long ago about how if we’re not engaging in self-care, we’re engaging in self-neglect. The Canadian Dental Hygienists Association (CDHA) published a version of this article in their most recent magazine in advance of me speaking at their national conference this coming fall. In their magazine’s section dedicated to “Workplace Wellness,” my article “I Don’t Have Time: You Are Either Engaging in Self-Care or Self-Neglect” challenges us to reflect on this question: how many of us don’t prioritize what we need versus what we need to do?

Taking sufficient time to prepare is not selfish. It’s generous. That preparation might include sleeping more, turning off your email leading up to a presentation, eating a healthy meal (vs. being a vending machine chef), and so on.

You would never run a marathon without training first. Speaking might be a psychological, spiritual and physical marathon for you, so don’t do it without self-care training!

Here’s what self-care looks like for me before a speech:

I arrive early. I meet the person introducing me to build a rapport (since theirs is the voice I hear before I walk up on stage, and if I ever feel nervous, that is when it will be). I click through my slides on the stage and do a sound check with the AV team before the doors open. I have a quick bio break (with the mic turned off…double and triple checking it is, in fact, off…ahem, learning from experience). I drink plenty of water when I first get up and have Throat Coat tea and honey ready for later.

I also put boundaries up too. I don’t check my email on the same day (someone covers that for me). I silence my phone and Apple watch. I remind my family I’m not available until after my speech. When the kids were little, I’d tell the school that if they needed to call us, my hubby was on point.

You might think all of these steps might make me feel more anxious about just how big a deal the speech is. The opposite happens. It calms the sympathetic nervous system (which controls the body’s “fight or flight” response). It’s like prepping a room to be painted. When you tape the windows, lay down drop cloths, and get out all of your supplies before you start, you can focus on the painting. All of the self-care you do to support a successful speech allows you to deliver huge value to people who need your greatness.

As my Nana would say, “You can just get on with it!”

Ego No-Go

image of a piece of paper that says EGO and shows a person cutting the E away with a pair of scissorsAlmost every time I felt anxious, you know what else I noticed? I made it all about me. If I think of my performance, it’s about…me. Yes, you are the vehicle for the message, and sure, the biggest part of the effort lies on your shoulders. But, the presentation is actually for the audience.

It’s so liberating! You’re serving them. It’s not a performance. It’s support. It’s assistance. It’s being a vessel for discovery, learning, decision-making, or whatever they need from your presentation.

At times, I get caught up in the prestige of the audience members. But that is also ego lurking. Are they really that different? We are all human beings. We all were breathing the same air, eating from the same continental conference breakfast, and sharing the same bathroom for bio breaks. Once, someone showed me to “the green room” before my speech, and it was so creepy walking down the maze of hallways. I was like, “Get me out of here!” I want to be in the audience, sitting beside the guy I hope doesn’t fall asleep and the gal cutting the check. Somewhere in the middle, because I’m in it with the audience. We’re all in it together!

We were sharing a human experience. I happen to have a different role. For an hour, I wear the role of keynoter, and then I go right back to being an audience member. (When I fly home, I transition to the role of shoe picker-upper, bill payer, grocery order submitter, and other fancy roles.)

One of the signs of this for me is coming to the conference early and staying after my keynote. Although occasionally I cannot, I try to be a conference member for as long as possible rather than see myself as the conference. During that time, I meet some super cool people; I inevitably leeave the conference with a friend. (Shout out to Luke from CMAA, whom I met in September. Lovely dude.) Do you get nervous speaking for friends?) Heck no! The cool human you met the night before is in your audience, cheering you on through their eyes!

The next time you want to speak up in a meeting, present for a potential client, lead a workshop, introduce the speaker, participate in a panel, or deliver a keynote, I invite you to remember:

  1. People want you to do well. Look for evidence of it.
  2. You are there to help and serve. Focus on your positive intent.
  3. Say kind words to yourself. Don’t let yourself say anything that an audience member would never say to you.

The Last Word

You may never enjoy speaking in front of groups. That’s totally cool. This article is not a magical salve to rid you of all future angst ailments. Just has my hubby.

Mark has been a teacher for over 20 years, and he still gets nervous before the first day of class. This doesn’t make him a worse teacher. If anything, it probably makes him quite endearing. He’s accepted that when he kicks back into teacher gear after a summer of being in the crowd versus corralling it, he will feel a little ‘ick’ for the first day or so, and then it will go away. After all:

  • image of a woman from behind standing on stage speaking to the audience Starting (or restarting) something is often uncomfortable.
  • Your comfort level with something does not equate to your effectiveness.
  • Your most awkward past presentation does not define your ability to speak now.
  • With few exceptions, has a speech ever completely ruined somebody’s future over the entire history of humankind?

It’s just another day. A day with a presentation or two. And those presentations are simply conversations in a different form. What’s the worst that could happen? Even if it doesn’t go as well as you might hope, what is the worst-case scenario? And what if it goes better than you hoped? Good thing you’re going to do it, or else how can you wow yourself (and others)?

The world needs your voice. You have so much value to add. Please share it. Speak up. Let us learn from your greatness.

Here are even more great ideas about unconditional recognition for both yourself and others:

Disclaimer/Humble Brag Moment: 100% of this content was human-generated (by us folks here at Greatness Magnified). We are committed to authorship integrity and will inform you what percentage, if any, AI is generated.

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– Mother Teresa

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