NOTE: This is a longer one and if that is intimidating, overwhelming, or cause for you to sit this one out despite being interested in the topic, I’m going to encourage you instead to try the podcast version (Apple Podcast | Spotify).
You can also skip over the whole post and jump straight to the framework — though the story is what will give it context.
Some people love public speaking, others can’t stand it. But, anyone who has ever done it, wants to be good at it. They want to be light and funny, entertaining and informative, and perhaps most importantly transformative. They want the audience to walk away changed, seeing the world through new eyes, ready to tell someone about it.
The obvious problem for most is something we call “stage fright.” It’s this natural tension that unleashes our fear of freezing up and looking like “a total loser.” Everyone starts pointing, sneering, whispering, and even laughing. You can feel the judgement creeping down every hair on your back. It is embarrassing, possibly even shameful.
Everyone thinks stage fright comes from general anxiety about this nightmare unfolding. The truth is that there are three things that cause stage fright, and none of them are anxiety — though all three can cause anxiety.
If you can wrap your head around what I’m about to share with you, not only will it help you avoid freezing up but it will change how you speak in front of groups, no matter how larger or small, for the rest of your life.
I’m going to tell you how a single moment 8 years into my speaking career changed everything.
These are the events that led up to me falling apart on stage and how to make sure it never happens again.
The First One
I did my first speaking engagement in August 2010.
I had been hired to talk about social media, for 90 minutes, in front of 200 people out in Los Angeles. Again, this was my FIRST speaking engagement. Luckily, I was passionate about the subject matter and knew what I was talking about.
I reached out to one of my peers and he gave me some advice about breaking the talk into smaller chunks or acts. I broke the 90-minutes into three 30-minutes segments.
I was ready.
When the time came for my talk, I was nervous. I waited anxiously in my seat waiting for my time slot. When I heard my name called I felt butterflies turn to panic. Can I really do this?
My heart was racing, beating out of my chest, and my only relief was the knowledge that my blazer was covering the sweaty armpit stains on my dress shirt. I walked up the stairs on the side of the stage, and I’ll never forget what happened next.
As my foot hit the stage and I shook the hand of the person who introduced me…I felt an immense wave of calm wash over me. It happened in an instant. I was in my zone.
Not everyone has this happen but I did. I loved it and I was hooked.
The First Season
After that, I took any gig I could get and for the next 6 years, I spoke in front of thousands of people, all across the country and even internationally. I was giving talks on a variety of social media topics running exclusively on coffee, passion, and subject matter expertise. I was comfortable, funny — at times — and deeply invested my audience walking away with practical, tangible information.
My audiences responded well, I got overall good feedback, and I thought I was great speaker.
The First Awakening
Sometime in 2017, a friend of mine told me about a secret Facebook group for Speakers and Authors. She asked if I wanted an introduction and next thing I knew, I was in, somehow.
It was the big leagues. I felt like I’d slipped in the backdoor and any minute the bouncer would kick me out. But no one ever did.
That year, the group held its first in-person meet-up. Over the course of a two day event, I connected with some of the best speakers in the world. I began watching their speaker reels, looking at Youtube videos of their Keynotes, and learning about the world of serious professional speaking. I got up on stage in front of all my peers and got live coaching including having my feet held in place so I wouldn’t pace.
I began to suspect there was more to being a great professional speaker.
The First Crack
The following year, there was another meetup but this time, there was more live coaching except now, it had a name: Heroic Public Speaking.
Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you haven’t but I’ll cut to the chase.
It’s amazing. Michael and Amy Port have a background in acting as well as professional speaking. They treat speaking like a performance. Until then, I’d only thought of it as a presentation. You know, clever slides, witty off-the-cuff remarks, and subject matter expertise.
They did things differently and they were mind-blowingly, F-ing incredible. They started talking about how you move on stage, how you emphasize words, and even how to run your Q&A. They seemed to have EVERYTHING figured out, most importantly the process that it took to become a truly remarkable A-list speaker.
And that’s when it happened, a cascade of self-criticism: I absolutely suck as a speaker. I’m awful, I’m terrible, and I have been this entire time.
I promised myself that I would improve every aspect of myself as a speaker. I planned to rehearse for 50 hours for each talk. I planned to craft a narrative structure that Shakespeare himself would’ve envied. I would have comedic bits, and emotional, engaging, and deeply personal stories.
I was going to transform myself.
The First Freeze
For the next year, I tried to do some things differently. I added more stories to my talks. I planned my introduction. I even scripted an entire short talk. I spoke at some huge conferences, went to Bahrain for a talk, and generally felt that my speaking engagements were getting better as I focused on the craft of speaking. Maybe I’m not so bad after all?
Then, I got hired to Keynote at Webcon 2018 in Illinois.
It was a pretty big room, packed to the wall with standing room only. When it came my time to talk, I got up on stage, and for the first time in my career, I felt absolutely terrified.
The house lights were so bright I couldn’t even see the first row in front of me.
As I started speaking I could feel my voice quivering, my hands shaking, and I was shallow-breathing.
- I was trying to remember the opening to my talk, and wishing I’d practiced more.
- I was trying to remember where I was supposed to stand and how I was supposed to move. I became acutely aware of my pacing back and forth.
- I was trying to emphasize words and phrases of importance but forgetting which ones.
I was trying to remember a million things I was supposed to do and I got so wrapped up in my head my Keynote looked like Charles Barkley’s golf swing.
Not only was I overthinking it, but as I went through my slides it occurred to me, I couldn’t care less about the subject matter. Social Media had grown boring to me. I was no longer passionate as I talked about it. After a decade in social media, I wondered if everyone else in the room already knew everything I was saying or thought it was boring.
The silence of the room felt deafening.
I rushed through a 60-minute keynote in about 35-minutes and ran off stage back to my hotel room, as quickly as I could. I didn’t stick around to talk to anyone.
The nightmare that I thought could never happen to me, happened.
The First Day Back
I didn’t set foot on another stage for about 2 years. I did a small meetup here and there but, in truth, I was shook. I was terrified of panicking on stage again.
Another speaker and friend of mine named Tony Chatman was in town and invited me to attend one of his workshops on Unconscious Bias. Over the next 2-3 hours, I watched Tony own the room. He was funny, light, entertaining and a total master of his content. He had stories, punchlines, and special moments with the audience. It looked so effortless. I’ve since seen it three times and it’s been incredible each time.
It shook me out of my slump and I swore to get back out there doing what I’d once loved. I began working on a talk called Becoming Superhuman and a short while later, I was contacted about a guest lecture at Temple University. It was my first talk after the incident.
From the moment I got up there, I felt incredible and I owned every single second of that talk with energy, passion, and connection.
Superhero Speaking Framework
Not to be confused with Heroic Public Speaking which I wholeheartedly endorse and hold completely blameless for my overthinking.
So, what changed?
A Superhero Speaker, like all superheroes, is trying to change something in the world for the better. They lean into their superpowers. When I look at incredible speakers, these are the three things I noticed in every single one of them:
- Their topic is about changing something and it excites them
- They prepared and then let go
- They were true to themselves
Here’s why this framework works…
Your topic should be about changing something and it should excite you
When I panicked, one of the biggest reasons was I just didn’t care about what I was saying. I didn’t think it would transform anyone.
But, when I got the chance to talk to a room full of college students and show them a process for unleashing potential, I was so excited I felt like I could explode.
All of the great speakers I watched, believed in what they were talking about. They all felt like it could change the world. If you look at your topic and it doesn’t excite you, believe that your audience won’t be excited either.
You need to be prepared and then let go
When I panicked, I both didn’t prepare enough and prepared too much.
Preparation can take many forms. In the old days, when I used to just wing it, I was fully prepared to do it. Once I started taking my talks more seriously, I noticed that the events that went well were the ones I put the additional reps into.
When you adequately prepare, you will be confident that you can manage the talk no matter what, and you will be ready to let go and have fun.
You need to be true to yourself
When I panicked up there, I was trying to be someone else. I had an idea in my head of who I was supposed to be, forgetting who I actually was. I was imitating other speakers thinking that was the best version of Jeff the speaker, instead of discovering who I really was.
When I saw Tony speak, I saw a marvelous speaker. I saw someone owning the room. I saw someone who was prepared, knowledgeable, and perhaps most importantly for me on that day, authentic. He was all of those things, and he wasn’t trying to do it as anyone other than himself.
Some speakers want to make you laugh, some want to make you cry, and others want you to get up and dance. Whatever type of speaker you are, make sure it’s the type of speaker YOU really are.
Your First Superhero Talk
I hope you find something worth shouting from the stage or from the rooftops.
I hope you take the time to prepare in whatever way you need to feel comfortable, and when in doubt, rehearse a little more.
I hope you do the work to find your own voice, so you can get up there and own the stage rather than renting it from another speaker.
Do these three things and you won’t only avoid stage fright, but you’ll change the way others see the world. And sometimes, that might just be the best opportunity we have to make our dent in the world.