Speaker Journal

5 Times Speakers Must Speak Up Instead of Being Flexible

If you’ve read A Dietitian’s Guide to Professional Speaking, you know I’m a firm believer in going with the flow and making an impression as a flexible speaker. After giving a fantastic performance, being easy to work with is the next most important way to polish your reputation and be invited back.

The hotel elevator broke? You’ll hoof it up the stairs. The previous session ran long? You’ll tailor your remarks to whatever time remains. Flexibility without complaint endears you to your host, your audience, and especially the person who messed up.

There are a few notable exceptions where you have to either speak up and ask for what you need or refuse a request from your host, even if you’re afraid of seeming demanding or uncooperative. In these specific few cases it’s not just your option, it’s essential that you stick up for yourself, even at the risk of making waves. 

#1: The Situation Will Make You Sick

Your hotel room reeks of smoke and it’s making you nauseous; your salad has something on it that gives you stomach cramps – when something is going to make you ill, it should be super easy to ask for what you need. But the desire to be accommodating and not diva-licious can interfere with even common sense.

If you’re hesitant to speak up, channel your inner caregiver and imagine you’re asking for a friend. With utmost politeness, meet the task at hand. Ask for a different room, or could the kitchen please remake the salad. If at first you don’t succeed, ask to speak to someone else.

Once I arrived at a ballroom to check out the scenario about an hour before an all-day event. I walked to the dais where I would be presenting and realized the placement of the screen meant intense projector light was shining right into my eyes. Light and glare are my migraine triggers, and this was a definite recipe for pain.

I mentioned this to my host who suggested this was a molehill not a mountain. Not wanting to go over her head, I was immediately tempted to just let it go. But I knew that even if I got through the day, there would be hell to pay when the migraine hit. I found the hotel AV staff who figured out a set-up that worked much better.

#2: You’re Going to be Uncomfortable or Distracted

Your success as a presenter relies on giving your full attention to the task at hand, not halfway being distracted by the music in the background or worrying that someone can see up your dress. 

For a panel in a convention center, I walked into the ballroom and noticed the table on stage wasn’t draped. If I sat there in my dress, the audience would have an awkward view. Although my co-speakers encouraged me to just go with it, I knew I’d stress about keeping my legs and knees constantly crossed. I asked to speak with the person in charge who obtained a table covering from conference center staff.

I’m easily distracted by noise, so even soft piped-in background music will distract from what I’m trying to say. I’ve noticed this in smaller hotels where they’re more used to social functions than speaking events, and in restaurants with private rooms. Usually a waiter can turn the music off, but on occasions they tell me it can’t be done, I just ask for a manager. Sometimes “It can’t be done” is code for “I don’t know how” or “I don’t have the authority.”

I’m sure there are situations that can’t be changed. But you owe it to yourself to make the effort and at least a little way go up the chain of command.

#3: It Seems Potentially Unsafe

It’s not an emergency, but it’s a worry. You notice an emergency exit is blocked, someone potentially suspicious is lurking around, there’s a noxious smell of unclear origin. It’s bothering you but you’re not sure it’s important. 

Go ahead and bring it up to your host or staff and let them investigate. Explain you don’t want to ruffle feathers, but you’ll feel better if someone could look into it. You don’t even need them to report back, you just wanted to tell someone. This isn’t demanding; it’s detail-oriented, and sets the stage for a successful talk.

#4: Boundary Violations or Feeling Pressured

Any situation that feels inappropriate or triggers your internal warning system is a situation you should leave. The reason you give is less important than just getting out. You can make an excuse, offer an alternative, or simply say, “I’ve got to go.” If someone else’s feelings are hurt, that’s about them.

Interpersonal boundary breaches can be slippery and hard to spot until you’re right in the middle of them. You often don’t detect them up until the very moment they cross the line. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve agreed to already. Once you realize you want out, it’s time to make your move.  

Going out with colleagues the night before your talk can be a welcome distraction. If you feel pressured to stay when you’re ready to go, it can be tempting to go along with the crowd. Don’t. Either take a stand or just slip out, but don’t risk being grouchy or tired because you drank too much or stayed out all night. 

Meeting with the conference organizer to go over the schedule is routine. When you get to their hotel room and they’re waiting in their bathrobe, Houston, we have a problem. As you walk away, say you must have mistaken the meeting time and you’ll wait in the lobby until they get dressed. Alternately just walk away.

Your number one job is take care of yourself. Anyone who puts that at risk is someone you don’t need to worry about offending, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Your professional side wants everyone to like you. Not just in the sense of wanting to fit in; also because good relationships with peers and people in charge lead to recommendations, referrals, and ultimately more work.

Experienced perpetrators exploit that fact and are ready to take advantage of it, and you. Peer pressure is often easier to deflect than the person who makes you question your own judgment, professionalism or morals. They may try to rewrite history, or tell you you’re in the wrong. I hope this never happens to you. But if it does, please, PLEASE speak about it with someone you trust, someone who can assure you that it was not your fault.

#5: An Unexpected Change You’re Unwilling to Accommodate

Anything that deviates from your written agreement requires a discussion rather than a unilateral decision.

Let’s say you’re scheduled to speak at 1pm and you find out you’ve been moved to 4. You potentially could make your flight, but it’s going to be tight, especially with traffic. You’re tempted to roll with the punches to keep everyone happy, but internally you’re stressing out.

Consider your options to the extent you can. If you’re willing to stay later than planned, check online or call the airline to see if your flight can be changed, and if there’s room on a later flight (if there even is a later flight). If it means spending an extra night, ask the hotel if there’s a room available. Consider talking through your thoughts with a friend or colleague on-site or at home to determine if a) the change is feasible and you’re just annoyed, or b) if it’s actually a no-go and you need to push back.

Once you’ve determined which options you can live with, find your host or the person in charge and ask to discuss the situation privately. Let them know what you’ve learned about alternate travel plans and what they will cost the organization, or explain that you simply can’t take the chance of not making your flight. Stress that you’ll be happy to present at the original time if that’s still an option, and let them know what time you would need their decision.

Hopefully in most situations, it will be clear what route you want to take, and the majority of the time small changes will work out. But you are ultimately the captain of your ship and need to be consulted about things that affect your performance.

There are lots of things you can tolerate as a speaker, and several things you shouldn’t have to. You may be tempted to grin and bear an unsatisfactory situation or “Make it work!” as Tim Gunn would say. But that endangers the whole reason you came. Don’t take a chance on muddling through your talk when something is wrong that can be fixed. If it’s a choice between seeming demanding and doing a bad job, you simply can’t take the risk.

Have you had a speaking situation where you mustered your courage to rock the boat? A time you look back on and wish you had spoken up more strongly? How did it turn out? I’d love to read your experiences if you’ll comment below. And if you have a specific situation you’d like to talk over, send me a message at Jessica@DietitianSpeakingGuide.com and let’s set up a time to talk.

4 Free Ways to Make An Online Audience Feel Welcome Before Your Presentation Even Starts!If you thrive on the excitement of public speaking, presenting online can feel impersonal and even lonely.

You don’t have the instant feedback of audience reactions, you can’t gauge the energy in the room or make eye contact, and it’s a challenge to recreate the enthusiasm you feel in front of a live crowd.

Attendees of a virtual event can feel equally detached. Instead of trading their daily routine for a live, attention-grabbing event, they’re watching a screen with all the distractions of home or office or coffee shop around them. There’s no excited buzz of anticipation from other attendees, and if it’s a large group, they’re probably painfully aware of their status as a tiny square on your screen – or even worse, just a number in your head count.

Next time you’re prepping an online presentation, consider how you can bring warmth and personality to the technological aspects of the event. I pooled my ideas with suggestions from Rebecca Morgan, who does coaching and master classes on enlivening virtual meetings. Each of the ideas below can help attendees feel valued and welcome from the get-go, and none of them costs a cent.

Pro Tip #1: Personalize the Passcode

Using the random password auto-generated by your platform sends a message – the message that no one cares.

Instead choose a code that sets your desired tone – a word or phrase that relates to your topic, your business name, the sponsor, or something inspirational like “ExcitedToBeHere!” or “RDsRock”.

Pro Tip #2: Invite Information

In your confirmation letter, ask participants to email you back a photo with a few lines about their work experience and what they hope to learn from the event. Compile the responses and print them to review in advance and refer to while you present. (An easy shortcut: send a blank slide template with space for a pic and prompts for the information, then compile the responses into one document.)

Of course this will help you target your talking points, and it benefits the general vibe of the event, too. It sends the message that you want to know more about your attendees than just their screen name, and that you’re interested in meeting their needs.

You’ll be able to call on participants by name during your talk, or refer to something they mentioned, both of which increase the relatability of your speech versus using random examples or pleading for volunteers.

If your presentation is a longer-term event, such as a week-long workshop or ongoing course, or alternately a short event where they need to get comfortable with each other ASAP in order to be productive, consider asking participants for permission to share their bio and photo with others. (Set a deadline for submissions so that you’ll have time to compile the doc and send it back out before game time.)

The ability to review this info in advance and refer to it during your presentation will ramp up familiarity between participants, help them feel more comfortable sharing their challenges out loud, and improve productivity in partner activities and breakout rooms. It also saves all the time and annoyance of asking people to introduce themselves live when they’d really rather hear from you.

Pro Tip #3: Make Waiting Welcome

Insert a slide at the very beginning of your presentation that includes:

  • The title of your event and your name
  • A welcoming message from your host or you personally
  • A list of materials the participants need or might want to have handy (with links to where to get them if appropriate)
  • Instructions on how to submit questions and how/when they will be answered
  • Instructions for getting technical help during the call
  • Tips that will help them use the platform
  • Any prompts or questions you’d like your audience to be thinking about

10 minutes before the official start time, load your presentation to the first slide, share your screen, mute your computer, and click Start.

Now participants who log on early will know they’re in the right place at the right time, instead of seeing the generic “The meeting will start when the host arrives” message and worrying about it. You’ve rewarded the early birds and even encouraged others to log on early for your future events.

Pro Tip #4: Don’t Take Privacy Personally

Accept that there are many reasons people don’t turn on their cameras, and none are about you:

  • Embarrassment about a modest or messy living situation
  • Family members or housemates with poor interpersonal boundaries
  • Didn’t feel like getting dressed just to sit in bed and watch you talk
  • Simply wanting to keep home life private
  • And yes, sometimes multitasking while you speak.

Let it go, and definitely don’t judge or nag. Criticizing an attendee who just wants to listen is a sure way to make them feel unwelcome.

It’s so worth it to spend a few extra minutes warming up the typically sterile virtual environment. I’d love to hear what you do when you present online to help your audience feel welcome.

Presentation Perfect Timing - Foolproof Steps & A Secret Weapon to Always End Your Talks On Time with an image of a woman holding a clock

Keeping your presentations to their allotted time is crucial to your reputation as a professional speaker. It’s too important to leave to chance because it affects your credibility, your ratings and your chance of getting hired.

Whether it’s preschoolers or diplomats, every audience has a limit and eventually resents a speaker who overstays their welcome. You never want to choose between racing to the end, taking extra time, or squeezing out the Q&A to fit in your remarks, because you’ll alienate the crowd, distress your host, and irk any panelists onstage with you.

Luckily you can prevent all of this when you right-size your remarks for any session length.  Use these seven steps and bonus strategy to prepare, plan, and most importantly, end on time, EVERY time.

Pro Tip #1: Clarify Expectations

Before you even plan your talk, find out the time you’ll have to actually speak. Ask your host/the event planner what to expect, such as:

  • Do the sessions typically start on time, or is there usually a grace period while people file in?
  • Are there perfunctory announcements (“housekeeping”) before you jump in?
  • Will you be introduced by an emcee, introduce yourself, or just begin with your speech?
  • Will there be questions from the audience at the end of your session? At the end of the event? How much time is allowed?
  • Is there anything else on the session agenda that you need to expect or allow time for?
    • Introductions of VIPs or officers?
    • Scheduled or unscheduled breaks?
    • Remarks from a sponsor?
    • Giving of awards or thanking volunteers?
    • Handing out evaluations?
    • Anything else?
    • And most importantly, has the time for these things already been accounted for in the session, or do you need to deduct them from your own speaking time?
  • If there are other speakers in the session:
    • What if they run long? Are you expected to compensate by shortening your remarks? Or do they deduct from Q&A time?
    • Will there be a moderator keeping track of time?
    • Can you speak with them in advance or practice together virtually?

You can’t control every variable, of course, but covering what you can in advance leaves your headspace free to handle anything that comes up last minute.

Pro Tip #2: Cover Less, Accomplish More

Even teaching a year-long course, you’ll never cover every detail. It’s even less realistic in a half-day workshop, hour, or even briefer session.

Make your peace with it and prioritize. Choose only the most essential talking points – those you’re known for or like best, the most immediately useful, or whatever you’re required to present.

If you’re not sure which areas to highlight, ask your host to choose. List five topics and ask which three to touch on lightly, or if they prefer you can focus on one.

If they want all the info and you know it can’t be done, don’t get frustrated, get excited! Can you add a second time-slot? Meet again next month? Divide up into workgroups? Just don’t agree to an impossible task and try to make it work.  Imagine your speech is a suitcase. If you stuff it to the gills, there’s a chance of overflow. And no one wants to see your underwear all over baggage claim.

Speaking of things everyone will see…

Pro Tip #3: Streamline Any Visual Aids

Audiences HATE when you don’t cover your material. And how do they know? Because you put it on your slide. Be prepared to cover every single line that you put on the screen, or face the harsh evaluations that tell you how you failed.

The best way to keep the peace? Design your slides to send a general message, not show your entire speech onscreen.  Use images or words that relate to your theme and reinforce your words.

When you’ve made your point, move on without anyone feeling robbed. Include references (or even better – links to your books and other products!) for anyone who wants to learn more.

Pro Tip #4: Allot Time Per Section

I’m sure you rehearsed your speech to see how long the whole thing takes and whittled it down if necessary. Now practice it section by section so you can time each topic, part or slide.

Jot down on your notes or make a separate card that tells you where you need to be at each 10-minute mark, or divide and allot a number of minutes to adequately cover each topic.

Then on presentation day, you can keep your eye on the time and slow down or speed up depending on when you hit your marks. This will also help you pace yourself if you tend to rush or go off on tangents.

Pro Tip #5: Plan to Be Delayed

Plan to have less time to talk than you’re officially given, even with the modifications you’ve already made. Everything takes longer than planned, especially when other people are involved. At both live and virtual events, there are often snafus that deduct precious moments from your time in the spotlight.

Whether you’re speaking in a venue or online, check when you arrive that the agenda is on schedule (or not). If anything has changed, it’s your job to make it work, even if it has nothing at all to do with you.

Be prepared for unexpected but manageable delays by underfilling your time. That way when the host waits a few minutes for attendees to settle, the previous speaker keeps yammering too long, or tech support takes time getting everything online, you won’t be panicking or hurriedly crossing out your notes.

(Note: Significant delays require Plan B. See Someone Stole My Time – Now What?)

Pro Tip #6: Try Out Your Tech

Dress-rehearsals are helpful for ANY live event, whether it’s on-site or on-bedroom. Take every opportunity to run-through the schedule, check your sound, test a new camera, install a new app – everything down to your new slide-clicker – before your presentation day.

You’re trying to eliminate anything that could slow your pace, distract you, or derail you while you talk. You’ve already put in so much time to keeping your talk on track; it would be a shame if something preventable kept you from covering an essential point.

And yes, I know, there will often be glitches you couldn’t foresee – sun flares, auto-updates, your cat threw up in your special chair – but anything you handle in advance can’t drain drops of precious presentation time or throw off your timetable.

Pro Tip #7: Bring A Timepiece

Lots of venues have countdown clocks or timers, and sometimes volunteers to flag you down with hand signals or flash a “Wrap up!” sign. But there may not be a clock where you present, and you can’t assume it’ll have the correct time.

Can you imagine halfway through your talk realizing the clock hands haven’t moved? (Actually happened. I lived through it. But still. Lesson learned.)

With your own clock, watch or phone, you’re in control of where you put it, it’s the same as when you practice, and there’s no chance your volunteer will get distracted and forget to wave. I prefer a timepiece over a countdown app, simply because the most important data for me is the time I need to end. As with everything, use the method that’s best for you.

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 = Success!

There’s one final thing that can interfere with all of this: worrying you’ll be SO efficient that you’ll finish too soon, with excess time to spare. No one will have questions, so you’ll stand there on the stage, alone and super awkward, clasping your hands together, shrugging in a “What do we do now?” gesture. In the perfect silence you’ll get the clear message: everyone’s disappointed.

I suspect this is unlikely. First of all, when was the last time you were upset a lecture ended early? I mean as great of a speaker as you certainly are, everyone else has places to be. But more pertinent, people typically have more questions than time to ask them, so they’ll probably be delighted to have extra Q&A.

But if you’re even a little worried that underfilling and over-planning will leave you on stage with time to spare, you might be tempted to put in extra slides. It’s classic overpacking to make sure you have enough; a reverse kind of stage fright, and equally upsetting.

To help you fight that urge, I present you with:

The Foolproof Secret Sauce of Perfect Presentation Timing

All you have to do is plan and prepare one (or more!) secret things – i.e. they aren’t on the official agenda – to keep in your back pocket that no one will miss. For example:

  • A true story from your life that reiterates your major point
  • A funny anecdote that relates your topic to current events of the day
  • An invitation for an audience member to role-play a situation with you, or with another participant
  • A demonstration of how you’d do something you talked about
  • Lead the audience in an experiential activity
  • A case-study where you describe a situation and audience members share how they’d handle it based on what they learned from you today
  • Pair off and discuss a topic you assign, or exchange emails with your neighbor and agree to recap in a month on how you utilized this information
  • Breakout groups to each solve a different problem and report back their ideas
  • Ask audience volunteers how they’ll take the info presented today and use it back at work
  • A surprise presentation for your host or someone in the group, or a raffle of your book or product
  • A game of charades or pictionary using prompts related to your topic
  • A jeopardy or trivia game related to your topic (always nice to bring prizes)
  • A special poem or reading or demonstration of your special talent

or anything else – LITERALLY anything else – that won’t be missed if you don’t have time. If time is short, you just exclude it, and no one ever has to know.

That way if you need to fill some extra time – unlikely as it is, but you really never know – instead of feeling stressed you’ll feel excited to reinforce your message with the extra activity and end your session on a high note.  Who knows, maybe you’ll plan such a meaningful or fun activity that you’ll decide to plan it in to your next presentation! 

I’d love to know how you’re doing with timing, and what you come up with for your secret bonus activity. Let me know in the comments below.

And if you do better with one-on-one advice, email me to set up a time that we can talk.

Jessica Setnick is the author of A Dietitian's Guide to Professional Speaking: Expert Advice for Pitching, Presenting & Getting Paid

Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking - Steps to Vanquish Stage Fright Forever

If you’ve read A Dietitian’s Guide to Professional Speaking, you know there’s a difference between anxiety that inspires and paralyzing stage fright.

Nearly every professional speaker I’ve talked with – even the incredibly experienced ones – describes some kind of adrenaline rush before and during presenting.

Sometimes it hits the night before a presentation, or right before you take the stage, and although it can be distracting and even uncomfortable (for me it’s super sweaty armpits and wishing I stayed home), it’s a sign that your body and mind are gearing up for the event.

Alternately, many newer speakers have described feeling petrified to speak – not anxiety before presenting, but an actual dread of public speaking that paralyzes them before they even try. And most “advice” I’ve seen is worthless – “forget the audience is there,” “practice in the mirror,” “drink a glass of warm water” (???) – because it’s not only generic, it doesn’t get to the root of the issue.

Instead, try my 6-step process to get you to the podium. It won’t make you not nervous, but it will get you through it.

Step One: Connect Physical Reactions to Success

There are really two parts to this step.

Part A is to recognize that you won’t be able to totally control your body’s physical reaction to pre-presentation (or really any) stress. In other words, all the meditation in the world, and even beta-blockers, can only do so much. Your physical and mental symptoms are part of the package that comes with putting yourself out there in front of other people.

Does that mean you have to be in pain? Not at all. If the thought of speaking or speaking itself causes you migraines, dissociation, debilitating thoughts such as overwhelming obsessions or suicidal urges, or anything that’s not even half that bad, make an appointment with a sports psychologist and a psychiatrist to describe your symptoms and hear their take on what strategies they recommend.

If your physical and mental symptoms are more along the lines of uncomfortable – distracted, sweaty, elevated heart rate – your basic fight-flight-or-freeze reactions – consider them (as hard as this sounds) to actually be part of what makes you a success.

That’s right – How would you do if you felt the same way taking the stage as you do lounging at home, watching tv in your jammies? You have trouble summoning the oomph to get up and make a snack; how are you going to captivate your audience, keep them engaged, and drive your message home?

So Part A, accept that the stress/adrenaline combo (up to a point, see above) is actually a crucial part of your speaking success.

Part B, now separate your stress response from your belief that you’re not prepared.

What I mean by that is whatever you think your stress is telling you – Something bad is going to happen, I’m not prepared, This was a terrible idea – is not true.

The only thing stress tells you is that you’re stressed. Only. Everything else is a fiction that comes from your/society’s association with stress as a problem, as something to avoid or as evidence that something’s amiss.  As in, “If I were prepared, I wouldn’t be stressed,” or “If this was a good idea, I wouldn’t feel so stressed out about it.”

The fact is that you can feel stressed about both good choices and bad (and I won’t even get into whose judgment that is), just like you can feel perfectly fine about empirically bad decisions. Your stress is not proof you’ve done anything wrong.

I mean if your stress is just a problem with preparation, then reviewing your notes would make you feel fine, right? Since that doesn’t solve it, that wasn’t the issue.

Combine A and B and you get to the point where you simply accept stress (and the personal cocktail of symptoms it mixes up just for you) as a part of the plan. “Yep, I’m stressed,” or “Yep, this is what my body does before I present.”

Once you accept it, of course you can also plan around it.

I always decline invitations to hang out before presenting because I know I’ll be a head case who can’t follow a conversation. I ask an understanding colleague or a hotel staff person to help my find the right room because I get really turned around. And I ALWAYS wear a professional top with my suit because unless the room is sub-zero (and sometimes even if it is), I’m going to sweat so much that I’ll need to lose my jacket.

Knowing you’ll get stressed, accepting it and planning for it doesn’t mean that you’ll be comfortable. But you won’t add to your discomfort with false interpretations.

Step Two: What Speaking Glitch Worries You Most?

Answer this question: What’s the worst that could happen while you’re giving a speech?

If your answer is something that could actually happen –

  • I could stumble over my words
  • I could forget what I wanted to say
  • Someone might disagree with me
  • I could embarrass myself in front of my colleagues

– you’re on the right track.

(If it’s completely unrelated to speaking – a tornado could hit the building, something bad could happen to my kids while I’m away – this method won’t work. It may be a matter to take up with your therapist or trusted support person. Although I’m glad that thinking about speaking helped you identify this underlying source of distress.)

Step Three: Plan Ahead for Speaking Glitches.

Once you find your answer(s) in Step One, accept that one or more of those things is going to happen. It just is. It may have already. And hey – you lived through it. 

You’re not trying to be a robotic speaker. You’re a person with quirks and flaws and occasionally a missing slide. That’s part of being a speaker and it’s simply something you have to accept.

You may feel silly thinking about your answer – I mean stumbling over your words is really no big deal, right? Probably every speaker’s done it, and lived through it, and you will, too.

But just because it seems petty or even inescapable, don’t try to talk yourself out of it, because this silly-seeming fear is only the gatekeeper that scratches the surface and gets you ready for the deeper dive that’s coming next.

Before we go there, let’s plan ahead for any snags you anticipate.

  • If you’re worried about forgetting your talking points, make a notecard titled “MOST IMPORTANT POINTS” to keep in your view, or if you can’t bring notes, create an acronym that helps you remember.
  • If you’re worried about running out of time, review this article on Presentation Perfect Timing.
  • If you worry you’ll have a coughing fit, work a five-minute self-reflection exercise into your material that you can plug in when you need to take a break to cough it out.
  • If you’re worrying about an emergency or a heckler, review those chapters in A Dietitian’s Guide to Professional Speaking.

And so on. Once you’ve got your practical solutions on board, it’s time for the next step.

Step Four: What Are You REALLY Afraid Of?

Take your first answer(s) a step deeper: What if you do stumble over your words? Forget what you wanted to say? Get a bad evaluation? What could happen next?

You have to really dig in here, listen for the answers that are buried deep, because we’ve already established that this surface fear is probably no big deal.

What are you really worrying about?

  • No one will like me?
  • I’ll lose my job?
  • I’ll lose credibility in my field?
  • I’ll go broke?
  • Everyone will know I’m a faker?

These deeper answers are existential – they’re things that feel REALLY scary, because they threaten your livelihood, your security, your career… even your identity.

How do I know there’s something there? Because the simple things aren’t really scary. You already know you’ll live through minor glitches. If it’s scaring you from speaking, there’s something else behind it.

Try to identify your existential fear. You’ll know you’ve found it when it hits you like a ton of bricks. It might surprise you, or maybe not.

One of my workshop participants answered Step Two with his fear of being wrongly accused of plagiarism. That struck me as no big deal. I mean it could happen, but what are the chances? And once he pointed out he hadn’t plagiarized (Step Three), the situation would be over, right? WRONG.

In Step Four I found out this had actually happened to him. In his very recent past he had been unjustly accused of plagiarizing information for his presentation slides at a professional conference. And it had been INCREDIBLY distressing because not only was he wrongly accused, his accuser was a friend and colleague who did not accept the fact she was wrong, really made him miserable, and threatened to expose him as a fraud and sabotage his career.

Step Four revealed that his ACTUAL fear was of endangering his professional reputation. His family depended on him financially. If he were exposed (wrongly or not) as a fraud, he would be ruined and lose his livelihood. OBVIOUSLY he didn’t want to present in public again.

Once you allow yourself to identify this genuinely terrifying fear, take it to the next step.

Step Five: Detach Performance Anxiety from Existential Dread

They key to Step Four was accepting that your existential fear of public speaking is something REALLY scary. No one wants to ruin their life, lose their job or be hated. If you could protect yourself from those things by never speaking in public, that would be a small price to pay.

But Step Five may be even scarier, because it means accepting this equally terrifying fact: you can’t protect yourself from those things, not by never speaking and not by anything else.

You read that correctly. There’s no way to guarantee that your super scary fear isn’t going to come true.

[I predict right now you’re thinking, “Thanks a lot, Jessica, I thought this article was going to help, not confirm my greatest public speaking fear!” – but hear me out…]

Those terrifying things may happen, they may not. BUT IT WON’T BE BECAUSE YOU GAVE A SPEECH.

In other words once you accept that not everyone will like you, not everything will work out, and not everything is perfect, you free yourself from tying those outcomes to public speaking.

Accepting you have no control over other people’s behavior – or anything existential – is brutal. But it means you CAN stop attributing those outcomes to speaking in public.

Don’t believe me? I can prove it. If your fear is that you’ll lose your job if you say something wrong in a speech, consider that you might lose your job if you continually refuse to present.

If your fear is that people won’t like you, let me assure you that people (hopefully not many, but some) already don’t like you.

In the case of my workshop participant whose fear was being wrongly accused or taken down by a colleague, that definitely could happen. But it could also happen if he wrote a book, an article, or did an interview. Not speaking doesn’t eliminate the possibility of being accused, criticized, or even slandered.

I want to say take your time with Step Five, really marinate in accepting that public speaking is not the root of your fear, that it’s really about your identity and self-worth, your knowledge that the world is not always safe, or the fact that life gives no guarantees.

But since that’s so uncomfortable, I’ll let you dip lightly into reality, then quickly move on to the last step.

Step Six: Create Your Stage-Fright-Busting Mantra

The final step – the one you’ll come back to again and again – is creating a mantra to use whenever your stage fright rears its ugly head.

What should this mantra contain? That’s up to you.

It can be a Bible verse, motivational quote, affirmation, supportive message from yourself or a loved one… anything that contains these qualities:

  • It’s true.
  • It’s supportive.
  • It’s overarching, meaning it applies to more than just your one worst fear.

Your mantra should not:

  • Deny reality. “I will do a great job and everyone will like me,” is no good.
  • Minimize your fear. “No one is going to accuse me, that’s silly,” would not be a fit for the example above.
  • Shame you, e.g. “Stop being ridiculous and get on with it!”

Here are some examples of pre-made mantras that fit these criteria:

“I can do all things in God who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:13

“I’m a grown, competent person. I’ve handled everything that happened so far, and I’ll handle whatever happens next. (Even if handling it means throwing a tantrum alone in my bed.)”

“I will try to learn from each experience, even those that feel unpleasant. I know that other people’s reactions to me say more about them than they do about me. My family loves me no matter what happens today.”

“If you’re never scared, embarrassed or hurt, it means you never took any chances.” Julia Sorel

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you.” – Isaiah 41:10

“God, grant me the serenity the accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Neibuhr

You can also craft your own that is specific to you and your needs.

If you’ve made it to this point, well done! It’s a lot of work to actually find the source of your stage fright and debunk it. There are no guarantees it won’t turn up again, in fact it’s more likely than not. But next time, you’ll know how to comfort yourself that you’ll also be okay.

If you’re willing to share, I’d love to know the mantra you’ve created or have chosen to use. Share with me in the comments below. And if you’re struggling at all or just do better with things in a one-on-one session, send me an email at Jessica@DietitianSpeakingGuide.com and let’s set up a time to do it together.

Jessica Setnick is the author of A Dietitian's Guide to Professional Speaking: Expert Advice for Pitching, Presenting & Getting Paid. She's presented hundreds of times to thousands of people and still gets nervous every time.

 

Unique Speaking Platform Makeover: From Drab to Fab

Last year I gave a workshop based on A Dietitian’s Guide to Professional Speaking to my local iaedp chapter of eating disorder professionals.

I intended to focus on creating fabulous Unique Speaking Platforms, but it turned out that most of the attendees were struggling with stage fright, so we started there.

Recently I got this email from one of the participants, Jamie English, who gave me permission to share her story.

“You might remember helping me come up with my USP at the speaking training you did last summer. I had been asked to present and was scared to death. I walked away with a great USP and did the presentation 6 months later.

I printed off my fun USP and my original boring bio and offered both to the person introducing me.

She read the fun one, and I knew it was a hit when someone came up afterwards and introduced herself as a Gryffindor!”

Curious about the before and after? Of course!

Here’s where she started:

“Jamie English, LCSW-Supervisor (Licensed Clinical Social Worker Supervisor) has been in private practice since 2013. She specializes in eating disorders, body image, and trauma. She is EMDR Certified (and a Consultant in Training). In addition to using EMDR, she also uses Emotional Transformation Therapy (ETT) and Sandtray Therapy (which is not just for kids).

She received her bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Abilene Christian University in 2000, her master’s degree in Social Work from Stephen F. Austin State University in 2006. She has been an LCSW since 2010. In addition to providing clinical social work in her practice, she also enjoys supervising social workers who are working toward their clinical license.”

As you can see, Jamie did everything right when it comes to describing her credentials blah blah blah. But can you imagine someone introducing her from the podium at a big event? Half the audience checked our before the first paragraph was over.

There’s no disputing Jamie’s qualifications. But what will an event planner see in this bio that will move Jamie to the top of the pile of proposals? Nothing. There’s nothing to make attendees want a front-row seat in this session, and that’s what event planners look for.

Brainstorming the Unique Speaking Platform steps with a partner, Jamie transformed that ho-hum bio into this fabulous USP:

“Information junkie Jamie English drank the diet Kool-Aid so long she didn’t realize it was making her miserable.

Now a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Harry Potter nerd, she presents to people like her who know there has to be a better way. She hopes to help you find and embrace your authentic self (even if you’re a Slytherin like her) so you can ditch the diet culture for good.”

No wonder the organizer chose to read this USP!

In far fewer words, you get a MUCH better feel for the type of speaker Jamie is – irreverent, self-deprecating, easy to relate to – and what she brings to the table. Hired!

Now it’s your turn. Are you ready to revamp your tired bio into a USP that gets you hired?

Get in touch and let’s set up a time to talk.

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