Overcome speaker anxiety to become a fearless and engaging speaker


Guest Post by Deborah Shames

I confess. To this day, I experience anxiety before delivering a keynote or leading my business group. I have trouble quieting my mind and sleeping the night before. I imagine everything that could go wrong, and question whether I’ve prepared enough.

This may not sound like a surprising admission, since 74 percent of the US population surveyed in 2013 shares a fear of public speaking. What’s unusual is that I speak regularly to large audiences around the country—despite having this fear. I even formed a company called Eloqui, with my partner, David Booth, to train and coach professionals to be effective presenters and communicators.

Over time, I’ve learned to manage my anxiety and turn it into an engine that propels me forward. As I tell my clients, some anxiety is a good thing. It says your presentation is important. Your brain is firing on all cylinders. And you’re in the moment, focused on the task at hand. The trick is never to let your doubts stop you from speaking out.

Naturally, because of my fear of public speaking, I used to avoid most speaking opportunities. If, in a moment of weakness, I’d agreed to give a talk, sheer terror would set in immediately. I’d wake up every morning agonizing over the upcoming presentation and obsess about creative ways to cancel. This mental tug of war went on for weeks before the actual engagement.

By the time I stood up to address the audience, my fear of failure had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ability to think on my feet vanished. My quavering voice rose an octave, and I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. Afraid of making a fool of myself by leaving something out, I read my neatly typed, double-spaced copy word for word. If I could make it through the ordeal without passing out, I’d consider the experience a success.

I apologize to anyone who sat through my generic speeches back in the pre-Eloqui days. Like most audiences, you were polite and encouraging. You undoubtedly attended my talk because you hoped you would come away with a new insight or fresh perspective. But because I followed a standard template, most likely you were bored and could predict what I’d say next.

It finally occurred to me that the solution was right in front of me. I’d spent fifteen years directing performers to reach inside for emotional realism and sincerity. I needed to take my own advice.

Becoming an engaging speaker requires skill, courage, and an unwavering commitment to connect with an audience. This means incorporating your own perspective and personality into presentations.

As a former director, I know the value of practical techniques. It’s nearly impossible to follow the advice to “be confident,” or “be yourself.” That’s why Out Front is balanced between identifying women’s challenges in communicating, and providing an operating manual on how to overcome them.

But technique is only part of the equation. Learning to identify and express your core differences, strengths, and authenticity isn’t easy. George Burns said it best: “Acting is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” The same goes for speaking in public, or communicating with others.

In Out Front I share the performance techniques that David and I have translated for business professionals. I focus on the strengths and challenges facing women speakers because that’s what I know best. However, the techniques presented here are practical, field-tested, and proven. When these are put into practice, women and men can become engaging, memorable, and fearless speakers.

Order the book by Deborah Shames Out Front: How Women Can Become Engaging, Memorable, and Fearless Speakers