Confessions of a Communication Coach: Public Speaking Nerves in Action

What happens when a communication coach is struck by public speaking nerves?

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A few weeks ago, I was a guest on the Nonprofit Lowdown podcast. Rhea Wong is an accomplished nonprofit leader who left her organization to consult with other nonprofits to help them work with more efficiency and effectiveness. Her podcast is packed with tips, tools, resources and people-to-know inside and outside of the nonprofit world. Give it a listen!

Every day I help people change the way they interact with their work—and the world—by incorporating small, tangible tools into their everyday professional lives. This was a prime example of me putting those tools into practice.

I do this work not because speaking in public comes naturally to me, but because it doesn’t. I have to WORK at this. The system I’ve developed for myself to be out in the world making meaningful connections with other humans is what I teach others daily and it is my lifeline. And, of course, public speaking is rarely at a podium. It is speaking up at work, asking for a raise, having a challenging one-on-one conversation, client meetings, team meetings and, yup, appearing on a podcast.

I met Rhea through my dear friend, Sai Mokhtari. We had lunch a few weeks before the podcast recording and could have talked all afternoon about finding your presence and power at work, specifically for women and people of color. The morning of the podcast was particularly relaxing. I stopped at my favorite bakery on the way and showed up with croissants and coffee-in-hand. I was ready to go. I even avoided the stress of Manhattan by taking the outer borough G train. I was honored, excited, and nervous (or nervcited, as Katie McKenna would say) to speak publicly about my work for the first time since starting PresentVoices (!!!).

But when we sat down and Rhea hit record, I clammed up and a wave of nerves rushed through me. I felt out-of-body. I couldn’t access the passion I feel so deeply about this work. I felt dizzy and had trouble breathing. How could I speak about power and presence without being able to speak with power and presence? That was the only thing I could think about, instead of the people I was there to serve.

None of this was new to me. It’s why I started doing this work in the first place. As a theater director, I was confident and in control when in the room, even when directing dozens of actors at a time and overseeing big budget productions. But the moment I would have to “promote” myself—speak to press, interact with the audience, interview with producers—I felt like my identity disappeared and I’d clam up. I was curious—How could I be one person inside the room and a totally different person outside? I started to apply the same tools actors have employed for millennia (around presence, eye contact, focus, attention, connection, intention and choice) to my real-life professional world. It worked, and has worked for many hundreds of clients I’ve seen since doing this work.

So what did I do in that moment of speech anxiety? I did something that is not always available as an option when you’re speaking in public: I stopped the show. A full 10 minutes into the recording, I asked Rhea if we could start over. She kindly obliged. Once the recording started over, I felt confident and in control, but not before making a number of adjustments to my mental and physical state:

Why do I feel like this?

There were reasons why I felt nervous but in the moment, all I could hear was the voice in my head saying, “Why are you nervous? You do this all the time! You teach workshops every day and speak in front of hundreds of people about this very topic!” Focusing on that voice in my head made it worse because it put the fear center stage and amplified it—taking me further away from feeling connected with Rhea and her audience.

Also, this was my first public promotional event since starting my own company where the work is deeply personal and near to my heart. Of course I was nervous! It would have been weird if I hadn’t been nervous. Reminding myself that this is normal was key to helping me get grounded and recommit to the intention of the work (supporting people to present their most powerful selves at work, which I talk about in the podcast).

In addition to the very real circumstances I found myself in that day, we as humans experience speech anxiety and panic around speaking on a nearly universal level. Sometimes all we need is to remember that this is a collective experience and that so many people feel this way. Heck, it’s what I was there to talk about and I still had difficulty remembering it in the moment. That’s the power of speech anxiety!

Where’s my physical focus?

After taking a break and a breath, I could see how disconnected I felt from my body. I realized that I didn’t feel grounded physically or emotionally. I was leaning in to reach the mic, and I know that leaning in makes me feel small and unconfident. I couldn’t see Rhea through the sound equipment so I was unable to make eye contact. My throat was dry because I hadn’t taken a sip of the water she had intentionally given me before we started recording so I was unable to support my voice with full breath. On that note, I wasn’t breathing!

I was completely in my head and needed to get back into my body. Rhea adjusted the mic so I could see her and make eye contact. I leaned back and took up space. Taking up more space with your body and voice makes you sound and look more confident and that makes you feel more confident. I reminded myself to slow down because speaking at a rate that aligns with my thought process not only helps me feel more in control but helps my audience comprehend what I’m saying at a higher rate.

Could you tell?

Do you hear my nerves? I always say to my clients that no one can tell you are nervous unless you show them. To be honest, this is the most important part of the process for me. In instances where I’ve taken a break from speaking and teaching (read: when I had my baby), the first time back can be harrowing. The fears builds on itself—what if this time is the time I collapse in a puddle of nerves on the floor? It hasn’t happened yet and it is that simple fact that I rely on to keep me going.

Whereas many of my clients come to me with a list of negative past experiences when it comes to speaking in public, our work is to build up small wins to make them feel more in control in those moments and slowly replace the bad experiences with good ones, creating a positive feedback loop instead of a negative one. Because I stopped, took a break and a breath and found my own ground in a situation of public speaking, I’m proud to say I can add this to the list of good experiences that gives me courage in times of uncertainty.

Isn’t this meta?

I’m talking about talking and speaking about speaking. I know how meta my work can get. So when a long-standing client had a bout of speaking nerves a few weeks ago, all of the above was driven home for us both. She hadn’t been overcome with nerves since we started working together and when I asked her what happened, it all made sense. She was on a panel where she had to fight for access to the microphone and was on one of those high barstool-type chairs that are particularly challenging for women. She was speaking about diversity and inclusion and was worried about how her thoughts on the topic were going to be perceived. Once she could acknowledge that it made sense that she would feel nervous and ungrounded, she saw it as a moment to learn forward instead of fall back.

What are your experiences with speaking nerves? Did they surprise you or did they make sense? And what did you do to overcome them at the time? I’m all ears.