Last Thursday, I gave myself the afternoon off to celebrate the achievement of a goal that I’d set myself almost two years ago – to speak about my book, Ready to Be a Thought Leader? as part of the prestigious “Talks at Google” series. The video is not yet live but the audience members told me that the one-hour program was inspiring and engaging and I came away happy and excited after a fun few hours at Google’s new Sunnyvale campus.

But the day didn’t start off that way.

In truth, I awoke at 5 AM that morning in a cold sweat after a horrible ‘everything that could go wrong did go wrong’ dream. In it, I showed up late for my talk, got horribly lost, discovered the room was double-booked, was forced to give my session standing in the hallway, had no working AV, etc. You get the picture. My nightmare scenario included all of the things that every one of us dreads might happen…but thankfully rarely do.

So how do you still get out of bed and get on stage to share your ideas, regardless? Here are 7 tips for leaders and thought leaders that want to overcome their fear of public speaking and create a great talk that really rocks.

remind yourself, I will survive

Like every keynote speaker, I have had my share of ‘day of’ disasters. My very worst was early in my career when I showed up to speak to what I thought had been billed as a room full of college women only to find a large co-ed audience of tech professionals older than I was. To make matters worse, I had not thought through ahead of time the importance of having a place to store or clip the wireless microphone. Wearing a dress and jacket with no pockets, the AV tech was forced to tape the microphone to my back under my jacket. About ten minutes after I started speaking (and he was long-gone), the (only) microphone fell to the ground and broke. Now, I was standing in front of over 100 people shouting…with content that wasn’t targeted to the people I was shouting to.

And then…wait for it…someone turned out the lights. I’m not kidding. Someone outside the ballroom hit a switch and the room was plunged into darkness and I was standing under the lone spotlight at the front of the room.

You can’t make this stuff up.

But you know what? I survived. And you will too. No matter how much fear you have of public speaking, as far as I know, everyone who is brave enough to walk onto the stage lives to walk off of it. So tip #1 – remind yourself, you will survive.

keep living on the edge, regardless

After speaking now for over 20 years, and despite the still occasional nightmares or cold sweats, I continue to push myself outside my comfort zone and I encourage you to do the same. Because one thing I’ve learned — you only get better when you keep getting back on the horse…er, stage.

As my first mentor, Eunice Azzani, once told me, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.”

Living on that edge as a leader or thought leader means we must regularly seek out ever more challenging platforms to share our message — larger audiences, possibly unreceptive communities — and say yes to opportunities that come our way.

What opportunities will you say yes to this year?

leave yourself (lots of) time to prepare

Another key to overcoming any fears of public speaking is to leave a lot of time for the re-thinking and re-formatting that inevitably will go on for several days prior to delivering any talk – even one you’ve given before. Let’s not kid ourselves; prepping a new presentation takes hours. When my book came out in 2014, I hired the fabulous team at Alimat to craft my first set of slides and they were amazing; now I modify and revise as needed.

I also spend more hours thinking through exactly what’s needed to make an engaging session, customized to the audience and with real interaction. I like to build in a lot of questions that audience members can answer in conversation with another person sitting near them (or on a piece of paper if they are listening in by web conference) as well as one or two exercises that get people out of their chairs and up having fun. I want participants to be applying the lessons learned right away and have them walk away with some actionable steps they can take immediately. Besides, getting the audience to talk amongst themselves gives you a few moments to take a breath and compose yourself, if you’re feeling nervous.

What are the questions and exercises that will reinforce your key takeaways?

focus on what your audience needs

When I can get out of myself and focus on what the audience needs, I know I’m more likely to hit the mark. To do this, I spend time in advance interviewing the hosts of the event to learn about who might be attending – age, background, expertise level, problems they might be facing. I ask for anything I should avoid saying (words/phrases that are particular no-no’s) as well as information about the company/industry culture and any big changes, like a layoff or downturn, that might be underway.

If I can have one-on-one calls with a few audience members that the event host recommends, that is even better. I use that time to test a few of my key points, identify any additional information about the audience, and ask what questions they want me to address. If I can glean a quote or idea of theirs that I can feature, all the better (giving credit, of course!).

I also look for examples of what I will be speaking about – usually thought leadership – reflected online among members of their community. In the case of Google, I had no trouble identifying examples of role models who were already implementing some of the ideas I was sharing in my talk. Featuring those people (particularly if they will be in the audience), as well as case studies from my clients, assure people that they are not alone and gives them reassurance that taking action will lead to success.

How can you feature an audience member already taking the action you recommend?

walk through a mental rehearsal

By the day before a speaking engagement, I begin to walk through my slides, framing key points I want to make and honing my message. I am not one to write everything out in advance (although I might if I’m doing a webinar). However, I will do a mental rehearsal to see what belongs where and assure I have the right slides and they are in the right order. I’ll admit that things get juggled around a lot in those 36 hours or so before I go on stage and there have been a few times when I was surprised by which slide appeared next on the screen. That’s where the rehearsal time comes in – if I have prepared points in advance, then I can mix it up more on the fly and avoid a brain freeze.

In addition to a mental rehearsal, for the higher stakes presentations – particularly those where the session will be recorded on videotape — I will walk through the entire talk out loud, re-shaping and re-framing what I want to say as I go along. One public speaking coach I know, Paula Statman of Standout Presentations, recommends 30% of your prep time should be this actual walk-through rehearsal time but I’ll admit that early in my career it was closer to 40% and now it is about 20%. This is the time I might also think about any particular gestures or props or humor I could use to better reinforce key points. (Here’s a great Talk at Google on the importance of using humor and gestures.)

How will a mental rehearsal help you be ready for when you’re not ready?

play your anthem

I really enjoyed Brene Brown’s online class tied to her book, Daring Greatly. One of the steps she recommends is to select an anthem that you’d like playing as you enter the ‘arena’. Your arena could be asking for a raise, starting your own company, or overcoming your fear of public speaking. Having your anthem playing (figuratively or literally) will spur you on to overcome the inner voices that might be holding you back. My anthem? I am Woman, by Helen Reddy. OK, I realize I’m dating myself! But the energy and the lyrics of that song make me feel empowered to take on any challenge.

What anthem do you want playing as you take the stage?


ad-lib from connections in the room

Finally, on the day of, I like to arrive early and spend time networking with a few people in the room prior to my talk. If I can find out why they are there, what they are involved in, and/or their biggest challenges, I can weave those examples or questions into my talk to make it fresh and of consequence. At Google, I was able to create a connection with a few people seated in the front two rows, and then weave what I learned about them into my talk to reinforce the points I was making.

When I encourage people to share ideas during my talk with the person next to them, I also wander about and eavesdrop on their conversations – picking up additional viewpoints that I can highlight during the remainder of the presentation.

How can you showcase attendees’ ideas from the stage?

appreciate the rewards

Public speaking is one thing I truly love to do, yet it will likely always have the power to scare me – a little or a lot depending on the importance I place on a particular audience or venue. The good news is that there are long-lasting rewards. First, when you can see people smile, notice a face that lights up with a new idea, watch the audience interacting with one another, and hear their questions and ideas – that is immensely satisfying. I get so much energy from my audience that I remain on a bit of a high for days.

After the talk, if you get a few people (or more!) coming up to connect with you, if you receive follow-up emails or audience members share your photo and ideas online, that is truly rewarding. And when someone feels moved to invite you to speak on another platform, asks to join your tribe, or welcomes you to speak for their community, this extends your reach even further.

Best of all, however, is when you have the opportunity to reconnect with someone years later and learn that something you said that day, on that stage, had an impact that they still remember – that you really changed them. When you actually have the chance to inspire someone to feel in a new way, inform them to think differently, or enroll them to act for the first time, that — above all — makes even those 5 am nightmares completely worthwhile.

How will you appreciate the rewards of your chance to influence others?