Psychologists, counselors, and other mental health professionals have so much to offer the world through public speaking. However, many of us fear and avoid the stage, and so our impact on the world is limited to the therapy office.
This Time2Track guest post is an excerpt from Dr. Kyler Shumway’s latest book, Get Psyched: The Therapist’s Guide to the Art and Business of Public Speaking, written to help psychologists, mental health professionals, and students share psychology from the stage. To learn more, go to KylerShumway.com/books.
Sweat oozed through my suit jacket as I nervously picked my fingernails to the point of bleeding.
What am I doing right now? Why did I say “yes” to this? Stupid, stupid Kyler!
An audience of women and mothers had filled the church gymnasium the point of standing-room-only. The Salem, Oregon chapter of Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) gathered from far and wide to hear the wisdom of my supervisor – a licensed clinical psychologist and expert on perinatal issues – to speak about women’s mental health.
Instead, they got me.
My supervisor fell ill to strep throat the day before, and so I was assigned a fate worse than death.
I had 24 hours to prepare a 90-minute talk. On women’s issues. To a group of mothers. As a man, with no children of my own.
This was exactly the sort of situation that I wanted to avoid at all costs.
See, social anxiety and I are lifelong partners. The dragon of racing hearts and frantic thoughts liked to rear its ugly head in any scenario involving social performance – and so, I became the master of avoidance.
As a child, I played sick to get out of school, church, sleepovers, you name it. Even during my undergraduate years, I dropped any course that required a class presentation. So, not only did I suffer from crippling stage fright, but I also had very little practice with public speaking.
It was a completely avoidable nightmare.
And normally, I would have tried to come up with some excuse or illness that would allow me to escape the discomfort of that stage. Except, I was in graduate school, learning to become a psychologist, and my classmates and I had just learned about experiential avoidance.
It was time to face my dragon.
The event organizer began reading my introduction before I went on stage, and my heart was pounding a hole through my sternum.
Maybe if I have a heart attack, they’ll let me go home?
“We are thrilled to have local mental health expert, Mr. Kyler Shumway, here with us today to talk about perinatal mental health. Let’s give him a warm welcome!”
I stood up, wiped a bleeding thumb inside my jacket pocket one last time, and forced a smile as I took the stage.
It was not an amazing performance. I read off my slides, I stammered and used lots of “ums” and “uhs,” and I had a few jokes that fell very flat. I also ran over my time by ten minutes and left no opportunity for questions.
To this day, I have no idea how I survived that first talk.
But I did.
And, it changed my life.
After the talk, a few mothers approached me to thank me, share their stories of hardship and depression, and tell me that they were ready to get help.
I couldn’t believe it – I helped someone get help! My soul soared through the sweat-deluge that was my physical form.
I went from avoiding speaking like the plague to being featured as a keynote speaker at conferences, guest-starring on live television, and sharing my story with the world. I built my speaker-self up from nothing – and now, this is one of the most rewarding aspects of my professional career.
If I can do it, so can you.
Some of you struggle with anxiety as I do, and I wrote what follows specifically for you. Unfortunately, reading this post alone cannot make your fears “go away.” You are the only one with that power – but I believe in you.
I went from completely avoiding the stage to becoming a national keynote speaker, a live television expert, and a courageous confronter of anxious fears.
If I can do it, I know you can.
I once heard a speaker say that, even after 25 years of speaking, he still experiences stage butterflies; but now, they “fly in formation.” This post is all about learning how to tame your butterflies.
Step 1: Inoculate Irrational Beliefs
A brilliant study  used an information inoculation technique to help undergraduates manage anxiety during a required class speech. Before the big day, students in the experimental condition were sent a brief handout designed to refute some of the most common irrational speaking anxieties people experience, resulting in decreased pre-speech anxiety, fewer somatic anxiety symptoms mid-speech, and improved post-speech attitudes regarding the impact of anxiety on their speaking ability compared to controls.
So, you can potentially manage your speaking anxiety by arming yourself with knowledge! Check out the fears and beliefs listed below and think about which ones might apply to you. I have included the ones included in the research by Jackson and colleagues, as well as a few others.
Irrational Belief #1 – The Audience Will See My Nervousness
This belief comes from a psychological phenomenon called the “illusion of transparency,” which is the inaccurate assumption that others can tell what we are thinking and feeling.
People constantly tell me they would “never guess” I have social anxiety. I take it as a compliment, but I also think it has to do with how we perceive anxiety in others. Research has shown that audience members are not very good at guessing what speakers are experiencing internally. 
Your heart might be pounding, your armpits might be drenched with sweat, and your cheeks might be twitching involuntarily, but the audience is probably none the wiser.
Irrational Belief #2 – The Audience is Judging Me
Known as the “spotlight effect,” this is the fear that others are judging and hating on how we look and act.
I believe this goes back to our need for belonging (as well as some narcissistic tendencies). We crave approval, we want others to love us, and we need a mechanism to alert us when those needs are in jeopardy. So, we are all too preoccupied with ourselves to notice those around us. Research has also shown us that people tend to be more focused on themselves than they are whoever is on stage. 
True, you are on stage and “in the spotlight.” However, you are probably overestimating the level of judgment being passed. Give yourself some compassion, keep your chin up, and focus on giving your best performance you can.
Irrational Belief #3 – My Anxious Feelings Will Ruin the Performance
Apparently not! The impact of anxiety appears to have more to do with how the symptoms of physiological arousal are interpreted by the speaker. 
If your heart is pounding, breathing speeds up, and temperature rises, you could take those sensations as indicators of anxiety or excitement (or maybe some of both!).
The time and energy you invest in trying to push the anxiety away could be much better spent improving the content and preparing for success.
Irrational Belief #4 – I’m Going to Run Out of Time
Have you ever felt rushed during your talk? Did you speed up to make up for time? Did you run out of content much, much sooner than anticipated?
The experience of onstage anxiety tends to distort one’s sense of time.  Some of us speed up and speak quickly in an effect known as “tachypsychia,” a rapid increase in processing speed to help us make rapid, adrenaline-fueled decisions in the pursuit of survival. My theory is that the speakers who ramble on and on past their time limit have little anxiety and conscientiousness.
Rehearsal will certainly help you stay on track and keep a good timetable. However, you should try to remind yourself in those moments when you feel rushed to take a deep breath, check the clock, and focus on giving a good performance. If you go over time, the audience should at least enjoy it.
Irrational Belief #5 – If I Mess Up, My Speaking Career is Over
Depends on what you mean by “mess up.” If you get on stage and belt out a vulgar, racist, sexist rant, possibly strip naked, and assault an innocent bystander while the scene unfolds on live television, then yes: your speaking career is over.
Otherwise, your career as a speaker is over when you say it is over.
None of us give perfect talks. All of us stutter, forget the next line, click to the wrong slide, and give sloppy answers to audience questions from time to time. Messing up is part of the process. Learn as much as you can from your mistakes and mishaps, but don’t let them keep you up at night.
Step 2: Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse
Many early-career speakers will firmly agree with the following statement:
“If I could just manage my anxiety better, I would be an amazing speaker.”
Try replacing the word “speaker” with “heart surgeon.”
Just like doing a good job in heart surgery, doing a good job on stage requires much more than staying calm and collected. Often, speakers will feel anxious before and or during the performance because they are underprepared.
Think about how you might feel if, and I’m assuming you aren’t a surgeon here, you were told to perform heart surgery in the next few hours. Furthermore, think about how you might feel during said surgery as you cluelessly poke around with tools and hope for the best.
The key to confidence is preparation.
The Greek poet Archilochus once said that “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” The more you prepare, the closer you will be to performing at the level you hope to achieve.
Heart surgeons probably feel anxious the first time they swing the scalpel, but by the time they perform an actual surgery, they know the routine frontwards and back. Why? Because they rehearse. Over and over and over, they rehearse the process. They practice each step ad nauseum. And even when they finally reach that point of flawless performance, they keep practicing. If you want to feel as confident as the heart surgeon in operation, you will need to practice like one.
Rehearsal provides anxiously wired people like us with an outlet. In fact, anxiety will fuel your fire. Anxiety will make you work harder than everyone else. Anxiety will keep you passionate, determined, and focused. If you were able to take it all away, you might not care as much.
So, how should you rehearse? Let’s dive in.
Rehearsal Tip #1 – Achieve Happy Birthday Level of Memorization
TED speaker Jim Urban once wrote about achieving “Happy Birthday level of memorization” when it comes to giving a talk. If I were to ask you to set this book down for a moment and sing everyone’s least favorite annual hymn, you could probably do it, word for word, without mistakes. You know the lyrics so well that you could probably improvise and sing it to a Reggae beat, change some of the words, and add in a few dance moves.
You want the content of your talk to be so ingrained, so well-rehearsed, that you can mindlessly spout out every word. This level of memorization allows you to improvise and be flexible at the moment. Speakers who memorize their content do not have to devote any of their attention to remembering the next slide or talking point, which gives them the ability to be fully present with and attuned to the audience.
Ultimately, the only way to learn the lyrics of Happy Birthday is repetition. You will have to put in the time to go over and over the content until it sticks. Jim Urban suggested you will know you have made it when you can give your talk while doing some other unrelated activity, such as cooking or cleaning. Put in the hard work up front, and your future onstage self will thank you for it.
Rehearsal Tip #2 – Script, Bullets, Blind
The first thing you should do is write out your entire talk as a full-length script. You will notice several benefits from scripting out the talk, such as being able to identify areas that need to be adjusted for length, but the greatest benefit comes from being able to polish your wording and pre-edit before memorization begins. Practice reading the script out loud while you time yourself to get a sense of how your talk fits within your allocated slot.
After a few scripted rehearsals, you can try editing your script down to a series of bullet points. Spend more time looking up from the page, practice the delivery, and how you might use your body to communicate the message. You might notice yourself stray from the original script on occasion, and you can use those moments to practice returning to your next bullet.
Once the bullet point rehearsals feel more comfortable, try moving on to the blind rehearsal. No notes, no script, just you and the imaginary audience. Feel free to transition from script to blind rehearsal in whatever way and at whatever pace feels best for you – some people will get creative by drawing it out using images on a whiteboard or voice record themselves reading the script and then listen to it on their commute.
Rehearsal Tip #3 – No More Do-Overs
High-octane speakers typically do not pause mid-talk and say, “Whoops, I messed up, let me jump back five minutes.” Once the performance begins, the show must go on. Similarly, once you have the talk fairly well-memorized, you should give every rehearsal as if you were on stage.
No more do-overs, no going back to restate something you messed up. Not only will this prepare you for some of the stage anxiety, but also it will help you practice improvisation and how you might pick yourself back up after a fall.
Rehearsal Tip #4 – Invite the Anxiety
According to my smartwatch heart rate monitor, the most anxiety-producing moments for me are at the beginning of the talk and the Q&A section at the end. My body doesn’t have those same anxious reactions during rehearsal, though, and so I would also feel caught off guard on stage, thus making the performance that much more difficult.
Just as you should practice with the content of your talk, you should also practice with the context. You need to practice performing with anxiety if you tend to get anxious on stage.
So, ask a friend or family member to listen to your talk. Give sections of your talk at Toastmasters. You can even video record yourself to prompt some of those same “I am in the spotlight” thoughts and feelings. I sometimes even practice elevating my heartrate by doing pushups or jumping jacks to simulate the physiological symptoms during those high-stress moments. If you can push through your content with a pounding heart and labored breathing, the stage will feel like a walk in the park.
Step 3: Prepare for Every Mishap
In 2018, I gave a co-led talk with Dr. Daniel Wendler in California. I designed the perfect introduction to bring us up on stage, which involved galloping like the knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Dr. Wendler pretended to ride a horse while I followed and clacked coconut shells as we pranced and skipped through the aisles of attendees before ending on stage. The audience loved it, they were clapping before we even got on stage – and then disaster struck.
The galloping made my heartrate bump significantly, and my brain misinterpreted this as intense anxiety. My throat tightened up. Tears flooded my vision. My breathing became shallow and rapid. My head felt light and dizzy as my thoughts raced – “I’m dying! I’m losing my mind! The audience can see my anxiousness! Aaah!”
I had my first panic attack, and it was in front of a live audience.
Thankfully, it was a co-led talk. I turned to Dr. Wendler and said I needed a quick breather while he handled the opening for the talk, which gave me a chance to do some grounding and catch my breath. And then, I rolled up my sleeves and pulled off a great performance.
Mark my words: anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
You will show up at the wrong venue. The organizers will adjust your time slot suddenly and without warning. Your microphone will cut out and screech. Your slides will freeze. You will accidentally burp in front of a crowd of 500 unsuspecting audience members (guilty!). People will ask questions for which you don’t (but should) have the answer.
These kinds of catastrophic failures will certainly evoke some anxious feelings on stage – and you will need to be prepared.
There is one simple, overarching rule you need to follow if and when your talk experiences a mishap:
Roll with it.
You should always feel free to pause and attempt to address the issue, but ultimately, you should be ready to continue with the performance regardless of what happens. The show must go on, after all. Here are some practical ways you can make that happen:
- Remember, the audience is not great at noticing the small things, so they probably missed it
- Sometimes it is best to just name it and say “wow, that was embarrassing/weird/silly”
- Try to be prepared to give your full talk without the use of slides or images
- Have your presentation backed up in multiple formats (e.g., laptop, thumb drive, cloud, email it to yourself)
- Stay hydrated and have plenty of drinking water readily available on stage
- Each mishap can also be a learning experience – you will certainly be more prepared next time
Where to Learn More
Interested in learning more about integrating public speaking into your career in psychology? Check out the full book, Get Psyched: The Therapist’s Guide to the Art and Business of Public Speaking, to learn more! Topics covered include:
- Developing a strong speaking topic and brand
- Finding and landing opportunities to speak
- How to put together a strong presentation
- Strategies for handling the Q&A session of a talk
- And more!
Questions or thoughts?
Feel free to contact Dr. Shumway at Kyler@KylerShumway.com
 Bar-Haim, Y., Kerem, A., Lamy, D., & Zakay, D. (2010). When time slows down: The influence of threat on time perception in anxiety. Cognition and Emotion, 24(2), 255-263.
 Brooks, A. W. (2014). Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 1144-1158.
 Gilovich, Kruger, & Medvec. (2002). The Spotlight Effect Revisited: Overestimating the Manifest Variability of Our Actions and Appearance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(1), 93-99.
 Jackson, B., Compton, J., Thornton, A. L., & Dimmock, J. A. (2017). Re-thinking anxiety: Using inoculation messages to reduce and reinterpret public speaking fears. PloS one, 12(1), e0169972.
 Savitsky, K, & Gilovich, T. (2003). The illusion of transparency and the alleviation of speech anxiety. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 618-625.
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