Public Speaking: How to Give Fear the Finger and Move Forward

Giving Fear the Finger

I remember my first invitation to speak at a national conference several years ago. I had been encouraged to do so by a mentor who I greatly respected. After some hemming and hawing on my part, she introduced me to the conference powers that be and gently pushed me to submit my information. I reluctantly agreed thinking to myself, "I don't stand a chance, so no need to feel nervous about this."


The topic I had chosen was on attachment, sex, and the brain. The nerdy title was, "The Gift in the Wound: The Didactic Dance and Repair of Early Relational Trauma Between Therapist and Client." In order to quell the fear gremlins I reminded myself, "Just submitting was a big step, and who will want to hear about that topic anyway? Even my most brainy therapist friends would likely find this subject to be a big yawn fest."

And then I forgot about it and life moved on.

Until...the morning the congratulations email arrived informing me that I had landed the gig. "Oh crap oh crap oh crap oh crap!" With sweaty palms I scanned the email noting that the attendees would be a mix of psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and physicians. A marriage and family therapist with only a handful of years in practice at that time and a new book that wouldn't be out until the following year.

What in the world had I gotten myself into?

To say I was nervous would be the understatement of all understatements. I. Was. Freaking. Out. "I am in over my head! Lord what have I done? Maybe I can let them know I am having surgery, or I won a trip around the world that month, or I was called to the moon on a special mission!" The excuses to back out came flooding in. I had a couple of sleepless nights. I talked the ear off of my significant other. Even my rescue kitties Pie and Stanley were sick of me.

Then, during a lunch with my younger sister, a corporate guru and bad ass boss babe who speaks around the country, I began lamenting once again about this opportunity and how unqualified I felt. After 15 minutes of my yammering, my sister set down her hot dog (she loves a good dog), wiped the mustard off of her chin, looked me straight in my eyes, and said in her matter of fact way,  "Mari! You need to calm your ass down. You have done so many brave things in your life. Things that make this look like a walk through the rainbows. So get over yourself, just suck it up! You know this topic inside and out. Be prepared, practice, and just go for it. They would be lucky to have a person like you presenting. Just do you."

My sis is not one to mince words. 

As I drove home I kept her pep talk tucked into my thumping heart. What resonated the most was, "Just do you." Once I arrived home, I gave my inner worrier a little pep talk of my own that sounded like, "You have done a ton of workshops, group work, teaching and training. The two pieces of feedback you consistently receive the most are: "1. Mari has an authentic likable spirit and a good sense of humor that engages the audience, and 2. Mari is organized, knows her materials and presents in a way that helps others easily learn." I typed up those reminders with two words, "DO ME" at the top. And then I tacked this affirmation onto my hello kitty bulletin board. It became my anchor when the storms of self doubt hit.

The happy ending to this story is that several weeks later, with shaking knees, and sweaty pits, I stood up in front of 100+ professionals from around the world and gave my nerdy brain/attachment/sex talk. The way I "did me" was to include comics, fun clip art, informative handouts, and even a song that I love that supported a small part of my presentation, "Ziggy Stardust" by David Bowie.

And the highlight of this 2 hour experience was during an especially sensitive story where I discussed (anonymously) a complex client case and an intervention I had tried, I suddenly heard loud popping noises. As I whipped my head around to see what was going on, I realized that the audience wasn't throwing firecrackers at me, instead, they had broken out into spontaneous applause. Someone even called out, "You rock!" I was so touched (and frankly shocked), I could barely go on. A colleague friend who had positioned herself in the front row for moral support shared that I had stopped mid-sentence staring out into the audience and then broke into a big goofy surprised grin that would not go away.

Though this was several years ago, I still like thinking of that experience. I like it a lot. It helps me every single time I step on to stage. I remind myself that I do rock as a speaker and presenter and that I will rock it again! Me and David Bowie.

If my story resonates with you, then welcome to the tribe dear fellow speaker! While some folks are as natural as a spring breeze on stage, the rest of us have to work a little harder. Not everyone loves to speak in public, yet most of us have something important to share that would help and inspire others.

The following are my tried and true tips to giving fear the finger in order to encourage and support you:

My best advise for leaning into the risk of public speaking

1. Start small and work your way up: Library talks, college classes, facilitate a workshop, speak to a local chapter of professionals, present at a senior center, read to foster children at a group home.

2. Be prepared: I cannot stress the importance of organization. I don't care if your audience is 3 people and their pet lizard, know your topic, practice it, time yourself, then practice in front of one or two trusted people. Some coaches advise not to over prepare because it will be too rehearsed. While there is wisdom in this, please make sure you honor your own instinct and know your material.

3. Understand your presentation software: If you are using power point, make sure you know how this program works and practice and practice with it. A remote clicker will be your inexpensive best friend!

4. Know what the venue's audio visual set up is and be prepared to roll with it: Do you need to bring certain connections or cables with you, or do they provide these? Are they Macintosh friendly? Will you have a lapel or handheld mic? What is the wifi password? What is the noise level? Find out before hand. And then, when you arrive to the event, get to know the AV person - this guy or gal will be your best buddy in case something goes wrong. I am not above bribery by chocolate!

5. Have a Plan B when it hits the fan: Sometimes no matter how much you prepare, something will go wrong, or it is not what was promised by the facilitators of the event. Every speaker has that one horror story, and you will have yours.

For example, I presented at a conference (I prefer not to name names, dates, events or locations) where I was invited to be the guest speaker. I accepted the invitation and then supported the event for several months, prepared my ass off, put together my power point, emailed my handouts and speaker feedback forms, traveled to arrive the night before to stay near the venue, mapped the directions, got up early to do my hair/make up/outfit and practice, and arrived 45 minutes before I was to present the following morning.

Upon arrival I was directed to a tiny dusty outside area, saturated by mist, with ants crawling all over the sticky chairs, and a sopping wet screen (or sheet?) that had fallen half way down on to the ground. My handouts had been misplaced, my speakers sheets were forgotten. My heart was in my stomach. It was an "O.M.G." moment for sure.

Rather than panic or tantrum (and believe me I felt a sense of both), I rolled up my sleeves, got rid of the ants (sorry ants!), hustled to dry off the chairs and gather them in as closely as possible under the tiny slatted roof so that the attendees and their laptops would not get wet.

And to add insult to injury, I was told 15 minutes before I began that I was not the guest speaker that morning after all. Instead, one of the event planners had scheduled another talk at the exact same time as my presentation. However, that talk was taking place in a cozy inside room, out of the mist, with comfortable chairs, and an in tact presentation screen to work from. I was also told that my presentation needed to end 30 minutes earlier than anticipated, "If I didn't mind, lol!" And if it couldn't get any worse, as I tried to get through a mountain of information within this new time limit, about 10 minutes into my presentation, two other leaders sat down and began to pitch their latest programs. And my payment for all of this work? I received one of the attendee gift bags of odds and ends.

Needless to say, it was an absolute fluster cluck from start to finish.

Moral of the story: Be prepared to think on your feet! These unfortunate circumstances will happen and when they do, you will need to have a Plan B. My Plan B that day: I simply sat among the people who where kind enough to attend my wet outdoor presentation. Because I could not access my power point, I rolled up my sleeves and I had a speakers conversation with them where I shifted gear into my coaching role. I decided that I would spend my shortened time with each person who had honored me with their time and give them the very best of the coach in me, one-on-one and in small groups.

Was I sweating? You bet I was! Did I feel good walking out of there? No, I did not. Was I confused and upset? Of course, I am human after all. Was anyone the wiser? Nope, not a single person. Thankfully I had offered hours and hours, weeks and weeks, and months and months of my time for free (including the time at the event) to many of the people at the conference. All of those many months of support and building relationships with the attendees smoothed out some of the rougher edges.

Remember: Every now and then there will be difficulties when you present. Rarely will they be as challenging as the one I just described, but if they are, dig deep and know that your inner expert and bad ass will show up to help you through. And, then...move on. No need to bash anyone, name names, or stoop to a lower level. Keep you chin up, and if the organization, colleague's name, or event name comes up, just smile and move along.

Though I never heard a peep from any of the event leaders after this unfortunate experience, from time-to-tome a therapist will email me asking me for my thoughts on the service they provide, and if it is worth the expense. And because I believe in the good service that they provide, I will simply respond this way, "I cannot speak from an attendees position because I did not attend, but what I can say is that others who did attend seemed to feel good about their experience, so it might be best to reach out to them." And then, I simply leave it at that. Bashing another colleague or organization or event - even when you have been treated poorly - only makes you look like the smaller person. Use the experience to learn from, and to help others learn from as well.

6. Know who your audience is: Will they understand your references? Will they be offended by profanity? Will your suit or professional dress look out of place? What are they interested in? What are they coming to learn from you? Tip: This is the most important point on this list!

7. Wear something put together, comfortable, but have a little flair: I have a colleague who wears Disney ties as part of his hook. Another woman I know wears butterfly scarves. Me? I love a good high heel and I've got big hair. BIG big hair. Now I realize that high heels may not be comfortable for most, but for me, I live in heels and I fee confident when I wear them (the secret is to find a good comfy high heel) - and the more sparkles the heel has the better!

The main thing is to make sure that you feel good in what you are wearing. This is not the time to try out that new tight skirt, or those squeaky shoes. Ditch the librarian or politician look..unless your audience is librarians and politicians (nope, even then, ditch that look).

And please, please do not fall into this latest myth that you should let it all hang out as a presenter or facilitator with jeans, bare feet, wet hair, a ball cap, flip flops and a hoodie. That may roll in some circles, or if your name is Mark Zukerberg, but it won't get you on to bigger stages. And labeling that kind of laziness as "being authentic" is well...(cough)...bullshit.

If you struggle with style (and it is OK if you do), then either hire a stylist, visit a stylist website, ask the advise of a fashionable friend who will be honest with you, or go to a department store like Nordstrom and work with stylist for free. It will be worth it to invest in one or two nice presentation outfits.

8. Remember you will be on a mic: If you are not familiar with speaking into a mic, find a local place where you can practice this (a church, a school, a hotel, a hall, etc.). AND remember that if there is a break during your presentation, un-mic yourself before going to the bathroom. A while back I attended a presentation where the speaker went to the bathroom and the entire audience got to listen to him, ahem, doing his business. You don't want to be branding yourself as the farting speaker (unless of course that is how you want to be known). To his credit, he owned it and it ended up endearing him to all of us. I'd go see him again and again. If something embarrassing happens, then use it as an AFLO (another fucking learning opportunity), try and dig into the humor, and move on. My misty patio presentation was a big ol' AFLO for me, but it did not take the wind out of my sails.

9. Be sure you have speaker feedback forms: Often the organization who will be hosting the event will already have these, or will ask you to email them yours. But you will want to double check on this. Positive feedback can translate into wonderful testimonials (with permission of course) for your website, media kit and speakers page. Who will be collecting these, and how will you receive them? Double check via email that your forms and materials will be there.

10. Include your contact information on every slide and handout: Make sure folks know how to get in touch with you by including your email or phone or both. Why? Because there will be people in the audience who may want to invite or hire you to speak at their events too. Why? Because you just kicked butt and blew them away with your fantastic presentation! And because the facilitator may drop the ball and forget to bring speakers feedback forms or lose them after.

11. Travel Time: How long is the drive to the venue? I like to arrive about 45-60 minutes before the event. This gives me plenty of time to find the location/room I will be presenting in (and to get rid of the ants if need be), to connect with the AV person, to meet the person who will be introducing me if I don't know them already, to help them with pronouncing my name correctly (MAH-ree), to get everything set up, to put out handouts or books, to get a sip of water, use the bathroom (un-mic'd!), to make sure there are no bats in the cave (if you don't know what this means, then google it baby!), and to put on some fresh lipstick and check my teeth.

Then as people start to arrive, I love to be in the back of the room greeting the attendees and introducing myself. If there is a reception before hand, I enjoy mingling around with the attendees. This helps me feel so much more connected to the audience. If it is a really large audience, this may not be possible, but whenever I can, I do this.

12. Ask for props: I always ask for a tall chair to sit in if I am presenting for over 30 minutes. I also want to have a small table near me for my water, remote, lozenges (always make sure you take something along for your throat if you are presenting over an hour), Kleenex, a place to set up my laptop, and somewhere to store my purse and briefcase. Of course you may end up in an odd ball space where none of this is available so have your Plan B in place.

Express Appreciation

Be gracious, thank every person from the cleaning crew to the CEO involved with the event. And don't forget to thank the person who may have heckled you. Why do that? Because you learn something from these people as well. Expressing appreciation goes a long way with people and it is just good professional form. And do your best to be kind even to those who might sit you on a dirty, wet porch without a screen or a wifi password. Being kind, even in the face of unkindness, sometimes will require you to dig deep, but dig deep you must.


Mari in her sparkly speakers shoes and big hair.

Mari in her sparkly speakers shoes and big hair.

In closing, the main thing when spreading your speakers wings is to find out who you are as a speaker, and to develop your own authentic style and voice. If I can move through my fear of public presenting, anyone can! Remember my sister's wise words,"Do you!"

If this has encouraged your voice, then speak out loud and proud in the comments below. Introduce yourself and share about your speaking journey - I'd love to learn more about you!

Kindly and in support,
Mari A. Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S