Tips For Overcoming Fear Of Public Speaking (Part 1)

Last week, I had the honor of presenting on Achievable Work/Life Balance at the Clio Cloud Conference. Clio Cloud Conference gathered 600 attorneys from across the U.S. and Canada. And I had the pleasure of presenting on a topic that’s near and dear to my heart – creating a sustainable law practice. As I’ve shared before, I don’t like the term work/life balance and suggested striving for a balanced life instead.

As I took the stage, I paused to notice how much I love speaking and connecting with the audience. This is a total 180 from just a few years ago, where I literally had a panic attack on stage. This year alone, I gave 23 talks.

I’ve learned so much over the years through the many courses I’ve taken on public speaking, weekly Toastmasters meetings, and, of course, by doing. Here are some tips that I’ve found to be helpful.

1. Notice Your Thoughts

No matter how well prepared you are, there’s always some part of your brain that is convinced you’re going to fail and absolutely suck at this. For years, my fear was 1) forgetting everything I was going to say and 2) throwing up on stage.

Rather than ignoring those thoughts or pretending they don’t exist, face the fear head on. Once you recognize your brain’s worst-case scenario, you can use your rational brain to ask yourself:

1) Is the thought true?

2) Is it absolutely true?

3) What if the opposite was true?

Going back to my thoughts above – yes, it’s possible that I may forget what I was going to say (or puke on stage). Am I absolutely certain? Of course not. Rationally, I recognize that I may fumble a bit, but forgetting everything I was going to say? Highly unlikely. Also, it’s just as likely that the talk will go amazingly well, and the attendees will get a lot of value. It can also be somewhere in the middle – just an average talk. Nothing spectacular and nothing terrible. And let’s face it, most CLEs are somewhere in the middle.

2. Serve The Audience

When you’re preparing to take the stage, it’s easy to focus on yourself. Will I say the right thing? Will I be funny? Will the audience like me? Did I pick the right-colored dress? Instead of hyperfocusing on your own performance, ask yourself: How can I be of service to the audience? What value do I have to bring? 

Before I take the stage, I’ll often do a short meditation (or I suppose some people would call it a prayer), where I ask for the following:

  • That what I have to say be of benefit and of value.
  • I speak from a place of honesty and authenticity.
  • I be of service to the audience.

3. Work The Room Before The Talk

This took a lot of practice but it’s incredibly helpful. Before you take the stage, walk around the room, shake hands and connect with your audience members. When I gave the talk at Clio with 500+ people, I walked to the very back row and introduced myself. I wanted to feel as though there was someone I knew, a friendly face sitting all the way in the last row when I looked out into the sea of people.

I also connected with people sitting in the first five rows so there would be people I can make eye contact with during the talk.

4. Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing

When the stress and anxiety level goes up, there’s a tendency to take shorter breaths. This only elevates the stress level in your body. I’ll usually find a quiet corner before going into the room and practice diaphragmatic breathing. The easiest way to do this is to place one hand over your chest (directly over your heart) and place the other hand over your belly button.

Notice which hand is moving. If the hand that’s over your chest is moving, this means you aren’t engaging your diaphragm. There are tons of research showing that slow, diaphragmatic breathing lowers stress hormones in your body and placing the hand over the heart releases oxytocin. Intentionally slow your breath and see if you can move the hand that’s over your belly. Practice this diaphragmatic breathing for three minutes.

5. Mind Your Body Posture

One of my favorite TED talks is by Amy Cuddy. Cuddy is a professor and researcher at Harvard Business School. According to her research, you can literally change how you feel as well as how others view you by changing your body posture. In her study, she had participants hold the “Wonder Woman” pose for just two minutes. The results were surprising. Changing the posture actually altered the subject’s hormones.

Here’s what we find on testosterone. From their baseline when they come in, high-power people experience about a 20-percent increase,and low-power people experience about a 10-percent decrease. So again, two minutes, and you get these changes. Here’s what you get on cortisol. High-power people experience about a 25-percent decrease, and the low-power people experience about a 15-percent increase.So two minutes lead to these hormonal changes that configure your brain to basically be either assertive, confident and comfortable, or really stress-reactive, and feeling sort of shut down… So it seems that our nonverbals do govern how we think and feel about ourselves, so it’s not just others, but it’s also ourselves. Also, our bodies change our minds.

So, go ahead, strike a pose and give the “Wonder Woman” pose a try for two minutes.

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about anxiety management, my book, The Anxious Lawyer (ABA), is available for presale!

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