How I Life-Hacked Public Speaking

Posted by Barbara O'Connor on Mar 17, 2016 12:00:00 PM

I was a competitive swimmer throughout junior high and high school, and I used to get exceptionally nervous before every swim meet — so nervous that I would imagine injuries that could befall me that would get me out of the meet: a concussion, maybe a few stiches, ideally something just serious enough to get me out of the meet but not too debilitating. How and why I continued swimming for seven years in the midst of this self-inflicted worry is the topic for another column.

Fast-forward 15 to 20 years and this has translated into a fear of public speaking in my professional life. I now contemplate injuries that will get me out of presentations to groups of people. (Please note that I have never physically harmed myself in an effort to get out of either a swim meet or presentation). I recognize that this is unhealthy and a complete waste of energy, so I have been working on it — taking advice and getting tools to make public speaking easier.

The first bit of advice came several years ago from an individual who told me to pay attention to what I was saying to myself before making a presentation and to counteract those thoughts with more positive commentary. It worked … a bit. I was slightly calmer.


Then, in late 2014, I went to a memory-training class. In essence, they teach you to break your content — or anything you are trying to remember — into chunks, develop an image that you associate with that segment (the weirder the better, our brain remembers things that are odd or unusual), and then you place those images into either a room or body list. I know it sounds weird. But as they tell you in class: Don't judge the process; judge your results. And it works. You are simply working with how your brain works, in images and stories, to help you organize and remember. It has been amazingly helpful. I no longer need notes, the content seems to flow more naturally and, as a result, I am more comfortable and in command. You can learn more at

More recently I watched Amy Cuddy's TED Talk, attended a lunch where she presented and am now reading her book, "Presence." Amy talks about how your body language shapes who you are. It's the second-most watched TED Talk of all time, viewed over 31 million times. A Harvard professor, Amy studies how we are influenced by nonverbal expressions of power and dominance. She discusses natural poses that showcase power (i.e., holding your arms up in celebration). In her research, she found that when you pretend to be powerful, you are more likely to feel powerful and this, in turn, impacts how people view you. Amy's advice is amazingly simple: Stand in a power position (think Wonder Woman) for two minutes prior to a stressful situation (job interview, presenting to a large group, etc.). So I have been trying it. I've been standing in a power pose for two minutes (not in public … at home prior to the start of the day, in you hotel room or a bathroom stall will do). It feels weird at first. Two minutes seems like a long time, but I am getting used to it. Throughout the day when I find myself wanting to shrink into a smaller posture, I broaden my shoulders. I have been checking my posture periodically throughout the day. I am still new to this, but it seems to be working — a simple way to present yourself in a more confident and naturally powerful manner.

There you have it: three of my life hacks that have helped me to be less fearful of public speaking. It's fun to get better and to stop senseless worry. I'd love to hear about any of your own tips and tricks for public speaking or anything else. Email me at

Topics: Public Speaking, Leadership


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