Public Speaking Anxiety?: It’s Just a Conversation

I was 26 years old and had just learned that my presentation was selected for a large conference. There would be 200 people in the audience, the organizers told me, “so, be prepared.” I was so excited!

As the sun rose the day of the presentation, my excitement changed to panic. Despite all my preparation and rehearsal, I could not shake the feeling that I was a complete fraud — undeserving of time in front of this audience. In tears, I called my father, a college professor, frequent conference speaker and the wisest calmest soul I know.

“Presentations are just conversations with the colleagues that create your community,” he said. “You’ve had plenty of conversations with people. Now, you are just sharing what you already know with more of them. If they weren’t interested in the topic, they wouldn’t be there.”

He added, “You are just one voice leading the conversation for a brief time. There will be plenty of people who came before you and plenty of people who will come after you. So, just enjoy the conversation.”

This was a powerful reframe. Instead of picturing myself as a naïve outsider in front of a judgmental group of strangers, my mindset shifted. I was now an equal, among colleagues and even friends, interested and eager to see what I would say. My shoulders dropped, my breath slowed and my voice was steady instead of shaky. The shift in mindset calmed me, and certainly made me a better speaker that day — serving both my audience and myself in a very good way.

That imagery has stuck in my mind for 20 years since, through hundreds of presentations. Before I go on any stage, I think of my closest, most supportive friends, and imagine them in my audience. I smile and relax — after all, it is just a conversation.