Scared to Speak: The one fear that may be limiting your careerFeatured

I am not a professional public speaker. I wouldn’t even consider myself good at it or an expert. So if you stop reading, I totally get it. My goal in this post is to encourage more women and people of color to speak publicly and, in doing so, find their voices. So I’m going to share my journey and what I’ve learned from it so far in hopes it might leave you thinking, “I could do that…” What is public speaking and why is it valuable to get better at?Public speaking might conjure up images of commencement addresses, wedding speeches, or the glitzy main stages of professional conferences.Technically, public speaking is the mere act of speaking in public and is not very different whether your stage is the TED stage, meeting room, or a Zoom call. What distinguishes it from a typical conversation is that you are presenting-- dare I say, performing-- a crafted message to an audience. In my experience, there are five major professional benefits of public speaking:1. It’s an opportunity to develop and deliver your message. Almost any form of communication is great for clarifying and organizing thoughts. For example, I’ve found a lot of benefit in daily journaling and blogging. But the edge that public speaking has is twofold: 1) it gives me practice in adapting my message for different audiences and 2) it is teaching me how to adjust to real time feedback. Additionally, it’s made my messages better over time. Presenting the same message for different audiences is helping me whittle away the points that have less impact and information.2. It creates visibility. The cold hard lesson I learned as a young professional is that working hard isn’t enough to get noticed. Working hard got me ahead in my early career, but at some point the recognition plateaued and it felt like the goal post moved when I wasn’t looking. Other people were getting promoted, despite how much extra value I felt my hard effort and personal sacrifices were generating. What was happening is that I wasn’t being considered for new opportunities, and I wasn’t being considered because I wasn’t being thought of. I wasn’t being thought of, because I was too busy busting my ass versus spending time to help other people see what I brought to the table. Public speaking has been a great way for me to apply my expertise in a way that will reach more people. 3. It helps you build a network. Public speaking helped me clarify my message and create visibility for myself. These benefits are helping me build my network in several ways. Notably, it is helping people find me because it is more clear what I can help with. Public speaking is also giving me the opportunity to meet new folks, including other speakers. I’ve found that it’s easier reaching out to people at conferences and that more people reach out to me when I speak versus when I’m just attending.4. It helps you build credibility. I used to naively think that my resume and hard skills gave me sufficient credibility. I think it still matters, but as I’ve progressed in my career, it’s had less of an impact compared to the credibility that others give me. I have found that my relationships are my greatest source of credibility on the quality of my work and what it’s like to work with me. Public speaking has given me credibility on my expertise, and I think it’s because it signals a number of things: a) I was knowledgeable enough about my topic to be invited to speak, b) I’m fluent enough on my topic to have a perspective that is worth presenting, and c) my expertise was valuable enough for strangers to invest their time listening. 5. It makes you a better leader. I don’t know if I would have believed this when I started out, because my perception of public speaking was that it was too lofty and arrogant for someone like me. I held myself back, thinking that I was inadequate to be on stage-- I mean, surely there are more interesting people! At times, public speaking can feel uncomfortably self-centered, especially when you suffer from imposter syndrome. However, I’m finding that public speaking is helping me to develop greater empathy. To get better at public speaking, you have to consider your audience to help them get the most out of your message. You also have to watch yourself and identify those ticks that might make you irritating or less enjoyable to listen to. This last part is very awkward, and I frankly hate it, but it’s making me think about how I’m coming across (in my body language, tone, and energy) just as much as what I’m saying. I’m finding that this is a vital leadership skill as well. That’s great for you but it’s not for me.That’s what I used to think about public speaking, along with the following 3 misconceptions:Misconception #1: It’s not for Introverts. I reckon that I’m 51% extrovert, 49% introvert. The introvert in me felt that public speaking was a dreaded display of self exhibition that was just not me. I felt that being an extrovert was a requirement or expectation. It’s not. Watch some TED videos and you’ll see a variety of styles, ranging from verbal essay to funny dialogue to live performance. Misconception #2: You have it or you don’t -- it’s skill that comes naturally. Though you don’t need to be extroverted to be a good public speaker, you do need to practice. In fact, the best speakers I know practice a ton in order to make it look natural. It makes sense when you think of public speaking as a stage performance like acting, dancing, or singing. You’re going for an effect that you want to have on the audience, and it takes practice to execute on it flawlessly. Anyone can develop public speaking skills with practice. Misconception #3: They would ask if they wanted me. It was easy for me to dismiss public speaking as something I would get tapped for when I’m ready. It was an excuse for why I didn’t need to pursue it earlier in my career. I was asked to speak from time to time, and I’ve found that some speaking events have led to new opportunities that I wasn’t expecting. That said, when you entirely depend on others to ask you to speak, you’re letting others define your expertise and scope your message. Starting out, I wasn’t in a situation where enough people knew me to ask me to speak about the things that I felt I was an expert-- so I had to create some opportunities for myself. I started out by volunteering to present at department-wide or company-wide events, then I branched out by finding local events that were looking for speakers.Try thinking of public speaking as a skill that you already employ in meetings and big presentations. Chances are, this skill would be valuable to you to get better at and that will only happen with practice. Er… fine. I’m interested. What next? If you’re just starting, you can start with some research. Try actively watching the top 10 TED videos. Note the speakers’ pacing, storytelling, visual aids, and humor. What’s their physicality (posture, gestures, facial expression)? Why is this a good presentation? Maybe read some books. There are a variety of self-help books that can give you the tools and detailed guidance to develop the skills you need. One book I reference frequently is Carmine Gallo’s Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. A google search will also yield numerous sites offering advice and instruction.I have found that public speaking is a journey and skill that I’m slowly getting better at with each opportunity. The basic loop is: prepare, present, and review. The more you do it, the better you'll get as a presenter and the sharper your message will be. Here’s a quick outline of my process:Step 1: Prepare. I start by researching the audience as well as the rest of the agenda. Then I brainstorm some key messages that I am passionate about and that I can uniquely deliver to this audience. I try to pick the highest value one. Then I write out my talk. I usually start out with an outline of the key points and messages I want to make before scripting out the entire session from introduction to close. I read through it several times, checking for coherence and grammar. Then I go through it again with an audience lens-- flagging areas of high energy (personal stories, humor, positivity, pictures) and low energy (data, dense information, negativity). With this information I’ll do another editing pass to balance the energy of what I’m saying to keep audience interest. After writing out my talk, I practice as much as I can. I read the script out loud several times, refining it along the way. Then I record myself and listen for my energy as a presenter. Sometimes my writing voice is too academic for my speaking voice, so I break things down into simpler sentences to make it more natural. Then I try to present in front of friends and/or family. It’s actually not hard to find someone willing to listen to you practice and it can be fun (read: prepare to bring some wine and treats). Step 2: Present. Thanks to my rigorous preparation, I know my material cold and I feel confident about what I’m going to say. The one thing I still struggle with is the shakes-- the jittery feeling I get especially at the beginning. I’m still working through it, to be honest, but I’ve found that breathing exercises and strategic pauses really help. What also helps is thorough planning, so that you’re not distracted. I plan ahead for my presentation day, starting with the night before. I plan on tummy-friendly meals, a full night’s rest, physical activity before the presentation, adequate caffenation and hydration, buffer time to collect my thoughts before the talk, etc. I plan my wardrobe for something that’s flattering and comfortable, appropriate for the venue and the conditions in which I’m presenting (usually, you can ask the event organizer for dress recommendations if they don’t already provide it). Be sure to ask what the mic situation will be. Highly recommend going for a hands-free mic solution, but just know that some earrings might be uncomfortable with a headpiece or that they may clip a mic to your bra strap if you’re not wearing pants or a belt that can be clipped onto. Step 3: Review. This is a critical step and-- as I mentioned-- not my favorite. Watch your performance, especially the places you stumble, and write notes about how you can improve. I have found that I say “um” an intolerable amount of times, and it’s become an endeavor to shake it out of my vocabulary. I have also found that when I sit as straight as I can on the edge of my seat, I look better and less frumpy no matter what I’m wearing. My voice also projects better. I would not have known these things if I had not subjected myself to the same abuse I put my audience through (I say this lovingly). My goal was to help you see public speaking as a valuable skill that anyone can develop. It’s certainly one that I aspire to get better at and I hope my journey inspires yours. Follow me on LinkedIn (/in/janelovesgames) and let me know how it goes!
This is great advice! What's sometimes tricky for me is if the atmosphere at the event is very competitive, and/or I find the people intimidating. Then I get myself to calm down before a talk by saying to myself "Okay, it is too late to change anything now, just go through with your plan!"In German we say "Augen zu und durch" before a challenging situation, which translates to "Close your eyes and go", aka just do it. That helps :)
Thanks TinaReis! There's definitely that moment where you have to take the plunge-- love the German expression for it.
I'm enamored of this article, thank you so much for putting it together! Your Misconception #3 is one that was personally holding me back, and I hadn't found a way through or past it yet. Thank you!
Hey Lindsey, misconception #3 was something that used to really hold me back too. There are so many opportunities to speak or give presentations. If there's a topic you're knowledgeable about, there are many local startup groups that are happy to hear tips on a topic. You can start with work and build up to larger and larger events :).
That's a great tip Cynthiachan-- I hadn't thought of that!
Thank you! I'm so glad to hear that. Messaging develops over time-- I started with rough ideas and not a great sense of who I was. It gets better with practice, even if it starts out awkwardly like I did. You'll learn a lot through the process.
Can't wait, thank you Jane! I'm currently using my background as a trained actor to help me with my investor pitches and it's been very helpful. This public speaking bit ties in very neatly with that, I'm excited to build your unique editing processes into my script building. I adore how you explain editing with different lenses/audiences in mind. Very, very cool info.
Thanks LindseyMiranda! Really appreciate hearing that this was helpful. A mentor once told me that the best communicators are the best listeners, and that made a lot of sense. It's so much less about what you say (which we all get caught up on) versus what your audience gets from the message.
I hear that. I've been focusing on sussing out which question(s) to ask in any given situation. I've had the fortune to observe some excellent listeners asking even better questions and I'm trying to figure out how to model that. I feel like the public speaking bit (and my own background in acting!) may tie in very neatly in some interesting ways.
100% - you have to be visible! Good advice! Thanks Jane.Any Elpha speaking coaches here for those who hear this but want support?
Hi Kristen, what have you tried that didin't work?
Mina, All of the above advice Jane gives on ‘simple loop’ are excellent, but I have seen speaking coaches really take people to the next level and sometimes its all someone needs - just a little extra external encouragement and confidence. Coaches can be transformational. This is just a call to for any speaking coaches to jump in! Personally, would love to add you to my network.
Love this Kristenb. I haven't had the opportunity to work with speaking coaches but it is something I'd love to do in the course of my career. Please, if you're a speaking coach, reply to this thread so we can find you!
@JaneHoffacker Contact me and I can connect you to speaking coaches in Toastmasters or people who work with Toastmasters members to get to an even higher level of skill.
@joannainsf Joanna I’d love to connect.
It took me far too long to realize that not speaking up and/or presenting was holding back my career. I still need to force myself out of the comfort zone and still don't do it enough, but I am definitely agreeing to present more often during team meetings.
Yay!!! Thank you so much for sharing this and best of luck on your journey. Part of the challenge for me was pushing back the feelings of inadequacy which I overcame with practice and-- frankly-- doing this enough to see that people do value what I have to say.
I love this! Thank you so much for sharing Jane. Misconception #3 is something I think holds many of us back - we think if we were good enough, people would reach out to us but that's often not the case. You start by promoting yourself and as you make more of a brand for yourself, that's where you'll start having people ask you to present. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy in that way!
YES exactly! Well put.
This was a great read, thanks for sharing, Jane! I was particularly shaken by this line:"when you entirely depend on others to ask you to speak, you’re letting others define your expertise and scope your message" The concept of 'if I'm worthy, they would come find me' is something I struggle with a lot - building a voice and a brand can be scary! The way you've laid it out gives me a lot to think about. Even outside of speaking, I think this can apply to writing and submitting pieces to publications.
This brings me a lot of joy to feel that this post was helpful, thank you for sharing and I wish you the best on your journey.
@JaneHoffacker Thank you for taking the time to outline your process. Your insight is helpful for those of us who strive to advance professionally.May I suggest for anyone who is interested in developing their confidence and ability to speak well, contact me! I can tell you all about Toastmasters, an educational non-profit, which I have been a member of for 4 years. I think more clearly, speak succinctly and have eliminated those pesky “ums”! The cherry on top is that I’m growing my network as well. In April, I’ll be working on starting a new Toastmasters club! I’d love for it to be an all Elpha member club!!!
Thanks Joannainsf! I've never participated in Toastmasters but I'm looking into it now. <3
@JaneHoffacker Now is a good time to check out Toastmasters clubs. We’ve been meeting virtually on Zoom since March 2020!Not only are we developing speaking skills but also online presentation skills as well! The latter will be the #1 skill that will help people succeed now and in the future.But also, if people have difficulty with interpersonal communications (with colleagues, your boss, with neighbors, etc.) then Toastmasters will help with this too. Members have a choice which Path they choose to learn: negotiations, persuasion, presentation mastery and more! Contact me and I’ll invite you to my SF club.
@joannainsf : I would be very interested in the Toastmasters clubs as I'm looking to improve my public speaking skills. Could you please let me know if I can join?
@joannainsf : I would be very interested in the Toastmasters clubs as I'm looking to improve my public speaking skills. Could you please let me know if I can join?
@Nanditha Check your Elpha message box to get my contact information
Fine tuning my public speaking is a big goal of mine for 2021! Thanks for this.