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How to Speak in Front of a Crowd without Dying (and more on emotional intelligence)

Welcome back to the Leader's Campfire! Sorry for the long absence but between flying to Barcelona to speak at a summit and driving to Mendocino to lead a women's leadership retreat with Tutti, I've been a bit busy in all the best ways. The theme of this campfire is emotional intelligence. Read on to explore fear, anger, wonder, joy, and a whole lot more!


STORY: Public Speaking 101. Seven ways to overcome glossophobia, the fear of public speaking.

WATCH: Rediscovering Wonder. Listen to my talk in Barcelona exploring why emotions, even the dark icky ones, aren't something to suppress, but something wondrous that can make you whole.

READ MORE: Additional Resources. Videos, articles, and other tips on public speaking.

BOOK STUFF: Book Club & Updates on Irene's book. We're reading Joy is My Justice by Tanmeet Sethi. Join us!

GOING FURTHER: Last call for women's leadership circle. Enrollment closes October 20, 2023.

 

STORY: Public Speaking 101


All week, we had been treated like famous VIPs. There was a driver waiting at the airport, a helicopter ride, photographers and videographers following us about like paparazzi. As I sat in the audience awaiting my turn to speak, the host, David Vox, introduced me as someone who inspired him, who could inspire others. Oh great… now I had to live up to even higher expectations. As if I wasn’t nervous enough already.


I stood and climbed the two short steps up onto the stage. Above my head loomed a massive canvas by Joan Miró. Surrealist, abstract shapes collided with bold black lines of paint. I walked up to the black taped X marking the center of the stage. I took in the faces of the audience, inhaled long and slow, and began.


I won’t bore you with the actual talk just yet. Watch it here if you wish. This article is about the tricks I used behind the scenes to stay calm and centered enough to speak in front of a crowd.


Glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking is the most common phobia, affecting 25% or more of the population. It’s actually baked into our biology like the fear of snakes, the fear of heights, and the fear of death. The research suggests that glossophobia is rooted in our fear of failure and being judged by others. Yet as one rises in leadership, getting up in front of a crowd and speaking with authority is an expectation that often comes with the job.


Neurobiologically, fear is governed by the amygdala, a pair of small almond shaped brain areas tucked deep underneath the brain and a little towards your ears. When the amygdala is triggered (Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod! I have to give a videotaped talk to a bunch of entrepreneurs and millionaires in a fancy museum. Aggghhhh!), it activates the hypothalamus, the brain’s mission control for the hormonal systems of the body. The hypothalamus relays information to the pituitary and adrenal glands and eventually you are awash in the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline.


It’s the anticipatory anxiety that’s the worst – the low level persistent fear and worry that seeps into everything like a miasma. Amygdala activation and stress hormone levels decline as you speak.


So, what do one do to manage glossophobia and build resilience in the face of anticipatory anxiety? Here’s seven tricks I used before and on the big stage. They helped me so much. And whether you’re getting up in front of a board of directors, a conference hall, or beautiful stage in Barcelona, maybe they can help you too when your big day comes.


Tip 1: Prepare

I wrote a draft of the talk. “Not good enough,” said my speaking coach.


I tried again. “Still not good enough.”


I tried again. I read the new draft to my writing group. They loved it. I shared it with my fellow summit speakers. “Good. But you are all about wonder. It needs to focus on that.”


I scrapped that talk and started over again. "The master of charisma", Richard Greene, says that 41% of the world, across cultures, suffers from glossophobia because they don't understand what public speaking is. "I don't want you ever, ever to give another speech. That's not what great speakers do. They don't give a speech. They don't give a performance. They don't make a presentation to the audience... Public speaking is nothing more than having a conversation from the heart."


So I started again, from my heart. Over and over again I wrote and rewrote the talk. Each time it got better: less academic, more authentic, more emotional. Each time I learned more about speechcraft: the use of repetition, of emotional ups and downs, of figurative language. Each time I honed the message further until it was crisp and clear with zero extraneous words.


Preparation means perfecting the content by using coaches, friends, colleagues, and partners to give you feedback, then iterate, iterate, iterate.


Tip 2: Practice

Once you have something you like (or run out of time), practice. Cognitive psychology has decades of research on how memory works. They’ve identified tips, tricks, and strategies that work best to memorize your talk. Here’s my top three suggestions.


First, use scaffolding. Teachers use the word scaffolding to mean initially surrounding a student with lots of supports and guidance, then gradually removing those supports over time until the student can do it completely on their own. In this instance, use a teleprompter, written notes, slides, bullet points, or audio recordings to scaffold you at the start. Initially, I simply read my talk aloud while reading the script on my computer. Then, I recorded myself on a voice memo which I could play back as I tried to recall the words alongside the recording. Gradually, the supports could fade away.


Second, spread it out. Rather than spending a single night cramming for two hours straight, spread those two hours out over several weeks. I spent three weeks practicing the talk once a day in the car after dropping the kids off at school. 8 minutes a day x 5 days a week x 3 weeks = 2 hours, but my retention was far deeper and longer lasting than if I had crammed.


Third, chunk it. Our working memory can only hold a certain amount of information at any one time, somewhere between four and nine units of information according to what source you are looking at. Thus, a speech of 1,000 words or even 100 sentences is too much for one’s working memory to hold. I chunked my speech into eight color coded blocks. Each block represented a different scene in the story with a different central point and different emotional tone. Sometimes I’d practice just one problematic chunk for all 8 minutes in the car ride home, or even just one problematic paragraph.


Tip 3: Small Experiments

The jazz musician Charlie Parker once said, “Master your instrument. Master the music. And then forget all that bullshit and just play.” I hear you Charlie. Preparing by writing and rewriting the talk was me mastering the instrument. Practicing by gradually removing the scaffolding was me mastering the music. But I gotta admit that I still wasn’t ready to “just play.” I needed baby steps to get me onto that stage. I used my time-tested method of small experiments.


Small experiment number one was delivering my talk to my kids, without any scaffolds. One day, instead of practicing after dropping the kids off at school, I practiced on the way there while they were (gulp) still in the car. Shockingly, despite all the cortisol and adrenaline in my system, I didn’t die. My daughter said, “That was okay. You should keep practicing.” Harumph.

The next day, I delivered it to a friend. I said explicitly, “I don’t want feedback. I just need to practice in front of another human being.” Once again, I didn’t die. Each time I did a small experiment, it helped my amygdala learn that nothing catastrophic happens after I put myself out there, which in turn makes the next baby step forward possible.


Once I got to Barcelona, our amazing speech coach, Patti Hall, said she’d be in the front row ready to feed us a line if we ever got stuck (a fabulous scaffold). And there she was in the flesh at our first practice. This time there were 12 in the audience, one holding a video camera and another holding a fancy camera. Again, I didn’t die. Sure, I forgot one whole section. And swapped two lines. And blanked briefly between two chunks. But with all the preparation and practice, my brain had mastered the music. All I had to do was forget the bullshit and play.


All the speakers were able to deliver our talks without needing lines fed to us. We could all play. And so Patti decided to leave the scripts at home. We didn’t need that final scaffold after all.


Tip 4: A Little Help from Friends

Which brings us to tip four. All the summit speakers supported one another and cheered each other on in the days leading up to the talks. Navigating hard things together made it oh so much easier. If the organizers and fellow speakers at your speaking gig are not supportive like that, call or text your BFF, your partner, your mom, your kids, whomever you can count on to support you and cheer you on. Hard things are way easier with a friend by your side.




Tip 5: Shake

When the anticipatory anxiety got high, I used shaking as a form of moving meditation. From the bushmen of the Kalahari to the whirling Dervishes of Sufism, cultures from around the world incorporate trembling, shaking, quaking, dancing, and other ecstatic movement in their health and healing practices. For me, it felt like I was allowing my muscles the experience of fight or flight, without actually fighting or fleeing.


I’d plant my feet shoulder-width apart with my knees bent slightly. Then, I’d shake, starting slow in my arms and hands, like shaking water off after washing them, but gradually adding more and more parts of my body and building up vigor. Eventually, my whole body was moving: feet and knees, hips and shoulders, head and neck. Imagine a dog shaking itself off after a bath. That was me.


I’d shake for at least a minute, sometimes two or three, until I could feel every cell in my body vibrating and activated, and a lovely sense of calm inner peacefulness would descend. The anxiety would be gone.


Safety tip: If you have physical limitations, shake to the best of your ability. You may need to shake slowly or while sitting down. You may need to be gentle with your shoulder or knee. Listen to your body.


Tip 6: Safe Place

Sometimes (like sitting in the audience waiting for my turn), I couldn’t shake. In those times, I’d take my brain away to my favorite beach of all time, Sherwood Beach on Oahu. That’s always been my happy place – the place I find most peaceful, relaxing, and safe. Yours might be a favorite reading nook with a cozy blanket. It could be your favorite vacation spot. Or it might be an imaginary place like an elaborate tree house. It could be indoors or outdoors. Wherever feels truly peaceful, serene, and calming to you.


I’d imagine the scene at Sherwood Beach in as much detail as possible – the colors, the textures, the sounds, the smells, the emotions, the feel of the air, the taste. I’d imagine walking along the path from my car, smelling the salt smell of the ocean, tasting the humidity on the breeze. I’d imagine taking off my shoes to feel the soft warm sand between my toes. I’d imagine all the hundreds of shades of blue and white on the water and in the sky. My heart slowed and my breath softened.


Tip 7: Center

Who are you at your very best? When you are effortlessly in the zone? When you are completely present, in your own skin, right here, right now? When time, space, and even self disappears? That is you, centered.


As I was being introduced and as I walked up the steps, the last thing I did was to get centered. Some people connect to the most centered place in their bodies. Others recite a mantra or affirmation. Bruce Willis in Die Hard took off his shoes and kneaded the carpet with his toes. Me? I had my theme song playing in my head: Twist and Shout by the Beatles. With the chorus rattling in my ears (“Well shake it shake it shake it baby now!”) and images of Ferris Beuller on a parade float before my eyes, I stepped onto those black X marks and began to speak.


Conclusion

Someone told me afterwards, “Irene, you’re such a natural on stage!”

I responded, “Natural? No. A whole lota angst and practice and worry but it turned out great and I learned a ton!” If I can do it, you can too.


As Mark Twain suggested, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.”


You got this!


 

WATCH THIS: Rediscovering Wonder

And here it is... my talk in Barcelona! Join me in the California desert and learn how finding anger reopened the doors to wonder.

PS. In Mendocino at the women's leadership retreat, we burned a lot of things in the campfire -- fear, hurt, and other things holding us back from our greatness. Many of us refused to burn our anger. Now that I've reclaimed anger, it's my rocket fuel.

 

READ MORE: Additional resources


The Mayo Clinic has great resources to support individuals with the fear of public speaking. Check them out here.


If you're one of those 41% of people who are so afraid of public speaking that you'll turn down a chance to change the world, then watch the TEDx talk by Richard Greene. You won't regret it.


And in case you are super curious about the neuroscience of storytelling, check out this TEDx by David Phillips. It's brilliant!


A ginormous thank you to my coaches -- David Vox, Patti Hall, Colleen Schell, and Jay Fields -- and all the incredible speakers I shared the stage with in Barcelona! Watch the full GOAT Summit here!


 


BOOK STUFF: Book Club & Updates on Irene's book


Did you know that the story of finding anger in the California desert told in my talk lies at the heart of Chapter 6? The big idea behind my book is to explore the science of why we love to travel. One reason to travel is expanding the heart -- encountering emotions that are hard to access at home, and thus expanding our emotional repertoire for when we are at home.


One of those emotions is joy, the central theme of the book we are reading in Book Club: Joy Is My Justice by Dr. Tanmeet Sethi. We meet next at 4 pm PST on Thursday, October 26, 2023. Learn more about and sign up for Book Club here. Or send an email to irene@irenesalter.com and I'll add you to the calendar invite.


 

GOING FURTHER: Last call for the heroine's circle!


The Heroine's Circle begins in less than a month! This women's leadership circle is designed specifically for female leaders with a really big challenge, goal, or role ahead of them. It's tough to walk that path alone. Let me, Tutti Taygerly, and a custom curated group of brave, experienced women walk with you on the journey. The goal is to sustain your hard won confidence, skill, grace, connection, and spark even as you tackle the big things ahead. Best of all, we end with an all inclusive retreat in Hawaii. Reach out ASAP if you wish to find out if this might be the right fit for you.


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