I have been coaching young people and adults in public speaking for seven years – initially in a school as a volunteer – and now with adults as a paid coach. When I started, I experienced imposter syndrome. I was a good public speaker and had many coaching ideas. But how did I know I would be any good at it? My first paid course was stressful. What if I didn't get results? If people knew that it was my first paid gig, would they feel like I was experimenting on them?
I am sure there were some clunky bits at first. Although the core of my content has not changed, I am consistently tweaking how I present it. But the first course was a success. And I learn something from each course that has improved my coaching.
Four years after launching a website aimed at people with public speaking anxiety (and wondering whether anyone would sign up for my first course!) I am taking the opportunity to reflect on some things I have learned as a coach.
If you are considering taking a course, this article will give you some ideas on how to maximise your chances of success. If you are a coach, you may find some tips you can apply to your coaching.
1 - Every group is amazing
At first, this was my big fear. What if my group didn't bond? What if I had someone disruptive? While I can control my content and format, I can't control who signs up! The group dynamics is important, but I can't guarantee it.
I need not have worried. I have coached many groups now and have never had a problem. I am always amazed at how supportive people are of each other. Although many of my clients have a similar background – early to mid-career professionals – I always have a mix. I have also had students, older people, business owners, and those who just want to speak at their son's wedding - and they fit right in.
The shared experience of having a fear of public speaking brings people together.
2 - Showing up (prepared) is everything
I worry if people start missing sessions. Seven weeks is not long. Missing one session is OK, but when people start missing two or three, they often drop off.
I get it. We all have busy lives, and the stress of preparing speeches is considerable. But I have got much more direct with participants from the outset. I tell them that they have paid the money, made the commitment, and now they owe it to themselves to show up.
In my last course, I asked them not to text or email me two hours before the class was due to start (as people were apt to do!). I said that unless it was an emergency, they knew in the morning that they weren't coming – so please let me know at 9 am and not at 4 pm as it messes up my preparation. I had the best attendance rate of any course for this group. Most of them attended every session (remotely in a few cases due to COVID).
3 - The value of video
I recently wrote a guest blog on this topic. In brief, videoing my clients is an integral part of my coaching. One benefit is that it helps people realise that they don't look as nervous as they feel! It also reinforces that public speaking can be broken down into a set of learnable skills.
I now use the new A1 public speaking tool Yoodli to give people metrics about their presentations. Yoodli provides information on filler words, pace, articulation, volume and other aspects of delivery. (Read this article for more information about how I am using Yoodli.)
Many of my clients have told themselves for years that they are not natural public speakers. But they don't realise that most of us aren't! Encouraging them to watch themselves on video helps them focus on skills rather than nerves.
4 - Mindset shifts are powerful
Most people are telling themselves a story about public speaking that is fueling their fear. And there are many common threads to these stories. Perhaps they had a bad experience in high school. Or they have noticed their voice shaking and assume everyone else can too. Or they have decided they don't have the 'gift of the gab.'. Or they are worried they will have a panic attack. And so on...
There is often one thing that will make a big difference to people – not the same thing for each person, but here are some common ones.
Here is a practical example. To deal with the panic that some people feel while they are speaking, I suggest that people think of it as a wave. They can either be battered by the wave or let it ride over them and dissipate before it breaks.
Some people look at me doubtfully when I say this! But others find the analogy super helpful. The same goes for reframing nerves as excitement. Some people understand the theory but find it harder to apply - while for others, it makes a real difference.
Part of my role is to trigger these mindset shifts. And to offer a range of tools and perspectives so that everyone can find something that works for them.
5 - So is letting of the need to control
Many people who sign up for my courses are 'type A' personalities. They are driven perfectionists who like to be in control! If they are writing something, they will keep working on it until they get it right.
They try to apply the same approach to public speaking by practising repeatedly. But the desire to control is counterproductive. The speaker sounds robotic or worse; they forget their script and start reading notes.
Being well prepared is essential, but a good speaker is not tied to an exact script. They can speak in the moment, confident that they 'know their stuff'. Part of my job is to encourage people to prepare in the right way – so that they are familiar with their content and the order of ideas without memorising every word.
Dale Carnegie once said
"There are three speeches for every speech you give. The speech you practice. The speech you give and the speech you wish you had given!"
That is a great quote – but I have also experienced the opposite. Giving a better speech than the one I practised! And that only happens when I am in a flow state – 100% present for my audience.
6- People can move past a fear of public speaking with the right help
I was once a very anxious public speaking. I still get nervous (like most people!), but I am no longer overcome with anxiety. In fact, I enjoy public speaking! So, I knew that people could successfully move past a fear of public speaking. But I was less certain that I could bring about such a shift for other people.
Four years later, I can say that everyone who attends my courses for the duration reports a huge benefit. Of a group of ten, I estimate that two-three people will have a life-changing experience, and fear will never be a significant problem for them again. The majority will find the course very helpful, provided they consolidate their gains through regular practice.
I have had great success with people who have tried other things and are doing the course as a last resort- perhaps because they have so much vested in it. This brings me to the final point.
7- They need to be ready
Sadly, I can't help everyone – mainly because some people are not ready to be helped. They don't show up every week. Or they come but tell us that they have not prepared.
It is crucial for people to 'have skin in the game.' It is great when an employer pays for someone to do the course – but I don’t like people doing it just because their manager has sent them. Participants must have a strong desire to improve their public speaking and preferably work with their manager to select the right course.
To summarise, I have learned a lot since I first started coaching public speaking. My basic approach has not changed, but I have a greater appreciation of what works and how to maximise success rates. A few things I have learned along the way are:
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I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.