When Public Speaking Fear Gets the Best of You

October 7th, 2019

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

At the National Speakers Association “Influence 2019” conference for professional speakers this July, I discovered a t-shirt that read: “Your greatest fear is how I make a living.” I knew I had to buy one. I wore it the next time I flew and was amazed by what a conversation starter it was. 

Everyone wants to talk about their public speaking fear. 

Lucky for me I love to listen. (Truly I do!) 

I used to have big public speaking fear. But the truth is — and in these and other conversations I’ve learned this is true for a lot of people — it wasn’t as much fear of public speaking as it was a host of other fears that tend to rear their heads to the surface when someone decides to step out and speak. 

Here’s a list: 

Fear of being seen. 
Fear of making a mistake. 
Fear of getting it wrong. 
Fear of other people’s judgement. 
Fear of people finding out I’m an imposter. 
Fear of going blank. 
Fear of embarrassing myself. 
Fear of saying something stupid. 
Fear of not being funny enough. 
Fear of the unknown. 
Fear of what others will think
Fear of not making any sales
Fear of falling off the stage.

You get the idea. The list goes on and on. 

You may know that I’ve been co-hosting and co-producing a story slam called Truth Be Told for the last seven years. You may also know that Truth Be Told has ended and I’m now hosting Boulder’s Story Slam solo.

Except it’s not solo — I’m partnering with The Dairy Arts Center in Boulder, and I have a crew of helpers to make it happen. (If you want to get on the mailing list to hear more about the next slam, click here

The first slam of the new chapter was a couple of weeks ago. I co-hosted it with my brother, Hal Walker, who flew in from Ohio, and it was fantastic! 

But here’s the thing. I WAS SCARED! I’ve produced and hosted the slam with a partner for all these years, and we had a particular groove going, and THIS BIG CHANGE brought up a host of haven’t-felt-that-in-a-while fears. 

Which I took as a good sign that I was doing something worthy of doing, and something that would take me right to my edge. 

That it did. I won’t go into all the ways it took me to my edge, but I will tell you that having done it, I’m stronger. Less scared. More connected to my truth. More connected to my power. 

The only way I could have contacted that power was to walk right to the edge and DO THE THING THAT FELT SCARY. 

It’s on hallmark cards and fridge magnets and bumper stickers all over the place, but doing something you see on an inspirational bumper sticker is usually WAY harder to do than the bumper sticker might lead you to believe. 

AND doing it is the only way to go. 

OK not true. NOT DOING IT is a fine choice, but I promise that if you do it, those fears will have nothing on you. That’s how you’ll get traction. That’s how you’ll make contact with the powerful speaker, leader and change-maker that you are. 

When you’re public speaking, you’re putting yourself out there.  You’re claiming your authority. You’re opening yourself up to other people’s judgement and disappointment. You’re risking humiliation and embarrassment.

Yikes! But still we do it anyway! 

Here’s a list of ways to keep the fear from rearing its ugly head when PUBLIC SPEAKING. 


It’s true. I have historically been “bad” at practicing (in other words, I have been much more of a procrastinator than a practicer). Which means, I honed the skill of improvisation and thinking on my feet. It worked out well enough, but I don’t recommend it. Here’s why:

Now I am a procrastinator turned practicer and it makes a world of difference. It does wonders for any lurking fears that want to wrestle me down. When I’m uber-confident in the content, then I get to show up and really work the room. Which is way more fun than frantically re-writing my talk in the bathroom only moments before I’m on. (yes, it’s happened. I don’t recommend it)


One of my favorite ways to practice is to record myself giving my talk then listen to the recording a whole bunch of times. Yes it can be kind of ouchy — hearing yourself talk is hard for a lot of people, because you hear all the flubs and neuroses in your voice.

But it will give you so much information! It will help you learn the talk, plus you’ll get to hear where you fall flat, where you repeat yourself, where your voice drags. I’m a reformed practicer and I LOVE this method of practicing. It takes lots of time, indeed, and it’s time very well spent. (Here’s a link to a short video I made with other tips for rehearsing)


If there’s a tape in your head that sounds something like “You idiot. Why did you say yes to this?” or “You thought you could get on stage and speak?! Ha! That’s a joke.” Or “When are you gonna learn that you do not belong on this stage. You’re an imposter. The crowd will catch you and humiliate you any minute now.”

But as I always say, we get good at what we practice. What we practice we get good at. So flip the switch and change the recording. “It’s fun to be me” is a good one. Or “You’re gonna love this!” Start practicing THOSE stories and you’ll suffocate the stories motivated by fear.


Often when the fear creeps in, it looks like wobbly knees, nauseous belly, shaky voice, racing heart. It shows up as physical manifestations of fear. Your body tells your mind “We’re f***ed!” and then your mind gets on a racetrack to oblivion with that story. Which of course feeds your body, so the nerves get worse. Your body feeds your mind feeds your body and you can’t show up and connect with your audience when THAT’s happening.

This is when the practice of dropping the story and simply paying attention to the sensation can change everything. Track the sensation with no story, so judgement, no problem. “There’s my belly doing flips. That’s an interesting sensation. I’ve felt that a time or two before. And my face feels hot. And my throat feels a little tight.” No drama, just tracking. Then you can connect to your feet on the ground, your breath, this moment.

(I have an audio recording that walks you through this practice. You can listen to it HERE.)


This is one of the rules of Speaker’s Playground. Your curiosity is your best teacher. So whatever’s happening, however you perceive that you’re doing, whatever sensation is present, always stay curious.

There’s no problem. There’s nothing that needs fixing. Your body is doing what it needs to do to take this big risk, so it’s doing just the right thing.

Say thank you and keep moving forward.

When you stay curious about your body’s wisdom, that’s when things start to change. You and your nerves start to be on the same team, not against each other. And that always helps things go better.


Yes, breathe. And then breathe again. And breathe again. With presence. With mindfulness. With your feet on the ground. With your heart open.

You can’t speak without breath. You can’t live without breath. In fact, the quickest way to the grave is to stop breathing, which means the quickest way to more vitality is to breath more fully, more embodied, more joyfully. Turns out the breath can help scoop up the nerves and turn them into vocal power.

That’s a start! I’m always discovering new ways to make friends with your fear. So stay tuned. 

What’s your best way to befriend your fear? Leave it in the comments below

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