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A number of years ago, my boss announced one morning that she would be leaving the organization where we worked, to take an amazing job on Capitol Hill. Later that afternoon I was asked to step into a big portion of her role, which was both a wonderful opportunity and a terrifying prospect. She was an amazing teacher and mentor to me, and she left big shoes to fill. Not only as an expert in her field, but also as a very frequent public speaker.
My boss's “panel spot” in certain national conversations suddenly — and unexpectedly — became mine. And just the thought of putting myself out there in front of large audiences on a regular basis was enough to make my body feel like Jello. I thought to myself, how do I calm my nerves before a speech?
Why do I get anxiety when speaking? It's for a number of personal reasons. But I came to this space of frequent public speaking with what was probably your average, human level of public speaking anxiety. I rehearsed and rehearsed, trying to memorize what I was going to say. I got the sweaty palms and butterflies in my stomach. All of which I think is probably normal. We humans are hard-wired, after all, to fight or flee. And a big audience can make us feel like we are staring head-on into a herd of wild animals, about to stampede us.
What are the signs of speech anxiety? Just that. You get nerves in your stomach. Your palms get sweaty. You feel physically ill. You think you might faint. There are tons of signs of speech anxiety.
So how did I overcome these nerves, which were both unpleasant and all-consuming? Here are five ways I not only got through the anxiety but grew to truly love public speaking.
Taking on this new role was akin to enforced “exposure therapy” as they call it in phobia world. After I became a mother, I was terrified to drive (thought I was going to kill my kids by getting into an accident). I was lucky enough to find a therapist who got into the car with me again, and again, and again. By gradually and repeatedly facing the situation that was causing me anxiety and distress, that level of fear went way down over time. Same thing for public speaking. The more you do it (and see that you don’t die, you haven’t ruined your career, etc.!), the more the fear decreases. And you have the added benefit of getting better at it each time, too.
In the sleep-deprived state that was my life with a baby and a toddler, I came to find I had so much less energy. There is truly no time for drama when you’re a working mama, and all of the emotions around public speaking fell into the “drama” category for me. Get up. Do. Move. Those were the things I was able to cope with. I no longer had hours upon hours to sit and stew about how a given presentation was going to go or not go.
There’s a natural evolution that I think occurs in our careers, as we gain more and more experience in our roles, expertise in our subject matter, and perspective on life. The more comfortable I feel in a topic, the easier I find it to speak publicly about it. I now focus my public speaking efforts on topics I know deeply — both in the legal space in my role as a law firm partner and in the work-life space, in my role as the founder of Mindful Return. While earlier in my career, I was wedded to scripted speeches, I now know my subject matter so deeply that I can view each talk as an opportunity for a flowing conversation.
I’ve done a lot of listening to others talk, whether on panels, keynotes, podcasts, or lectures. And I’ve spent some time thinking about what I do and don’t like about their presentation styles. Most importantly, though, through trial and error, I’ve learned how I want to show up before an audience, and I work hard to focus on that. Yes, of course, I want to be viewed as competent and knowledgeable. But it’s also just as important to me now that I show up as me. With humor and authenticity, and above all, as someone who is human and relatable.
The more I spoke, the broader the audiences I reached, and the better I got at it, the more the positive feedback started countering the negative thoughts and fears. People noted how much I had grown as a speaker — which inspired me to keep working at it and doing it more. I started getting clients from it. Some feedback I recently got on a work-life balance talk I gave at a law firm was that my message was “life-changing.” That’s the stuff that keeps me going, gets me excited, and quells my fears.
I may not have set out intentionally to overcome my public speaking anxieties, but wow am I glad I did. Why? Because having the confidence to get up in front of audiences lets me be part of the conversation. I’ve met people I otherwise would never have met. As a lawyer, it’s proved to be a wonderful way to get legal clients (I just got a call yesterday morning that started with “I heard you speak at the American Health Lawyer Association Medicare & Medicaid Institute, and I think my health system needs to hire you.”) And those goosebumps you get when someone says your talk about working parenthood made them instantly feel less alone are priceless.
As my husband says, you’re either nervous before a speech or you’re lying. It’s true, I still get a few seconds of those butterfly moments now, and yes, the bigger the stage, the bigger the butterflies. But the nerves don’t consume me anymore, and I actually have fun now in front of a crowd.
If you have speech anxiety, you're not alone in your stage fright. The fear of public speaking plagues a lot of people, but speech anxiety is a phobia that can be overcome.
Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return and author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to work-life balance and integration, navigating the return from parental leave, and (in her legal role) Medicare graduate medical education payments. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
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