Win the Room: Becoming Confident with Public Speaking

By: Katie Maffeo; Inspired by: Laura Burk 

I certainly know that I am not alone when it comes to fear of and the anxiety associated with speaking in front of others. Studies show that the fright of public speaking ranks the highest (over the fear of death) in most people. But, my uneasiness in front of people katiedidn’t just start with public speaking. My discomfort in front of people really goes back as far as I can remember. Just the other day, I was reminiscing with my sister about our younger years and she reminded me of how I would make her go to the bathroom with me when we were at a restaurant because ”everyone will look at me” or how I would get so overcome with anxiety on the starting blocks at a swim meet that I would literally shake. Any social situation had me feeling awkward and afraid that I would say the wrong thing. I feared that people would laugh at me and as a result, I didn’t like hanging out in large groups. And answering a question in class or having to read in front of other people…forget about it. We laughed about it for a while, but it was such a great reminder of the different person I am today.

A large percentage of those in the professional sector are tasked with addressing large crowds or teams at some point in their career. Or, they might be required to attend meetings where input is expected. As life progresses, maturity naturally helps shape your mind and outlook on different matters and life’s imperfections. But, it doesn’t cure the fear of speaking in front of others. There is also no magic pill to cure your fear either. Rather, there are techniques that can help redirect negative thoughts and improve your overall experience(s).

  1. Don’t try to calm down. Instead of participating in self-talk and trying to keep in the frame of mind that “I am calm,” chances are that you will give a more compelling presentation when you tell yourself “I am excited.” Believe it or not, physiologically we have two different systems: the ‘go system’ and the ‘stop system’. Your go system amps you up and makes you excited. Your stop system slows you down and makes you cautious. Because anxiety is such an intense emotion, it’s hard to make it vanish quickly in the face of uncertainty. It is easier to convert that anxiety into another strong emotion like excitement. So, when I feel myself becoming panicked about speaking, I no longer try to fight the reasons to stop. I focus on the reasons to move forward: I’m delivering a message that matters deeply to me. I enjoy offering actionable insights, educating the audience and providing some entertainment. As my enthusiasm climbs, anxiety fades and my presentations get better.
  2. Remember that it’s not about you. It’s about your content. The most important thing that you can do is to be prepared for your presentation. Know your content and be passionate about it. Remember that people are coming to hear what you have to say. When you stress out on how well you are going to perform, you are putting the focus on yourself rather than your audience. Remember why you are there. In all likelihood; it is to teach, inspire and to provide insight. It’s not about you. Your audience is counting on you to deliver value. Simply give the people what they want.
  3. Get to know your audience. I find it to be good practice to visit with audience members before I speak. I’ll shake hands, introduce myself and thank people for coming. I’ll engage in small talk and make them feel welcomed. These efforts are very helpful as you find yourself in front of these folks. The familiarity of friendly faces, warm smiles, and human contact can have a calming effect. There’s something about humanizing your audience that makes them less intimidating.
  4. Keep in mind that you’re the only one who knows. The truth is that most people can’t tell that you are nervous or afraid. And if you do show signs of anxiety by stammering or forgetting what you were about to say, recognize that your audience (in most cases) is in your corner. Contrary to popular belief, most people don’t enjoy watching a train wreck and it tends to be embarrassing for them to watch it. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I forgot where I was going with this.” A polite audience member will probably gently remind you, and then you may continue.
  5. It’s OK to not be perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s OK to be human and not get it completely perfect. Relax and go with the flow. And if you do put your foot in your mouth, it’s completely appropriate and endearing to be self-deprecating about your faux pas. I find when I laugh at myself that the audience laughs with me, making it even easier to continue.
  6. Audiences are people just like you. Whether you’re speaking before 5 people or a crowd of 500, recognize that all audiences are essentially the same. They are just people, many of whom suffer from the same fear of public speaking. Applaud yourself for having the courage to overcome your fear and believe that you leave the stage having accomplished your goal.
  7. Go easy on yourself. Most people are much harder on themselves than others are with them. Go easy on yourself, physically and emotionally. Get plenty of rest the night before your presentation, have a good meal, and let it go. Recognize that you are embarking on a unique experience and that you are going to give it your best. Don’t ask more of yourself than anyone would ask of you. Just be yourself and you’ll be brilliant.
  8. Let your passion, knowledge and experience take over. You will be speaking because you have something important to share. If you know what you are talking about, allow your passion for and your knowledge of your subject matter be the driving force. Before you hit the stage or take the podium, make a conscious effort to get out of your own way so that your reason for being on stage won’t be obscured by your own needs.
  9. Blank Stares?: The last thing to remember is that when you look out into the audience and see blank faces staring back at you, don’t immediately think that you’ve lost your crowd. Remember that these “blank” faces are actually people locked in on you and hanging on your every word.

Throughout the years, I’ve learned that you have to become comfortable at being uncomfortable. Put yourself out there. Keep in mind that being invited to present to any audience is an honor and a privilege. It’s proof that there is an interest in your expertise or in a special project that you have worked on. Allow that privilege to help you place your fear behind you so that your audience can learn and be inspired. I believe you’ll find it rewarding. Good luck and keep the faith. You’ve got this.



Learning through Leadership: The Transformation

Written by: Katie Maffeo

Leadership has taught me a multitude of things. As a ‘relatively’ young leader in the organization I’m a part of (and overseeing one of the most critical programs), I have witnessed first-hand what it takes to be challenged every single day. Whether it’s a consumer-related matter, fiscal concerns or circumstances involving the human resource component of my position, every single situation presents a learning opkatieportunity to which I continue to be very grateful. I’ve learned that to be an effective leader, you must use situations as educational opportunities for not only those involved, but for myself too. However; I’m not just talking about learning from the outcome of the situation. Every step of our day and the decisions we make can all be excellent educational experiences that contribute to our development as effective leaders.

I admit, coming into my leadership position was pretty overwhelming. I was brought into a part of the organization that I didn’t have much exposure to. I had to quickly learn  a laundry list of regulations, become familiar with the consumer-base that was being served, understand the best practices of the program and dissect the intricate inter-workings of the program. Little did I imagine that these would have been some of the easiest aspects of my newly appointed position.

One of the challenges I quickly realized existed was the cultural stigma that people immediately attached to me. No one in this program knew me. Therefore; most immediately disliked me for no other reason than the fact that they didn’t know me. If you’ve never been in this situation, consider yourself lucky. That was the day that I began to quickly become educated on the type of  leadership that was needed. As all of you reading this know: leadership makes great demands on people. As a leader, you are responsible for your team’s vision, for upholding a standard most associated with the mission of the organization, often for being the group’s representative to the rest of the agency and its protector as well. These responsibilities might be shared, but in most organizations, one person takes the largest part of the burden.

In addition to its responsibilities, leadership brings such challenges as motivating people – often without seeming to do so – and keeping them from stagnating when they’re doing well. Leaders also have to motivate themselves and truly be authentic in doing so, enthusiastic about what they’re doing. They have to be aware of serving their group and its members and all that that entails. In other words, they have to be leaders all the time.

Today, I will highlight the top 5 lessons that I have learned which have contributed to my transformation.

1. Know Your People: An incredibly smart man once told me that “in order for you to be able to grow your people, you must first know your people”. Different folks require different styles of leadership. For example, a new hire will require more hands-on supervision than an experienced employee does. A person who lacks motivation requires a different approach than one with a high degree of motivation. You must know your people! The fundamental foundation is having a good understanding of human nature, such as needs, emotions, and motivation. These simple human elements help you connect with people on a completely different level. And, as I continue to know my employees so continues their growth, right next to mine.

2. Leadership Circle: One of the most important steps that I’ve taken in my leadership development is the creation of a team of people that help support my vision of a better me. These can be people from within or outside of your organization. I’ve been very lucky to have a variety of people that I consider part of my “leadership circle”. It’s best to surround yourself with an honest group of people who aren’t afraid of hurting your feelings when you need to hear the truth. These people should be dynamic and diverse, thus providing you with a deeper spectrum of experiences to learn from. I am very blessed to have about 6 people (whom I greatly admire) in my leadership circle. All of these people bring something different to the continued conversations that we have in relation to effective leadership.

3. Active Listening: Being a good listener is critical to so many avenues in life, especially as it relates to inter-personal relationships and helping shape people’s perception. In leadership, I’ve found that participating in ‘active listening’ is a best practice. If I were to simplify this term, I would do so by stating that it’s best to listen to understand and not listen to respond. If you truly hear what people are telling you, they are more likely to communicate appropriately with you once you’ve established that level of trust, no matter the situation. I do caution anyone pursuing this, though, as it is quite time consuming. But, in the long run it pays off. As in most things, closing the loop on ‘active listening’ is the only true way of being effective. This is an imperative piece of the active listening. If you listen but don’t act, folks stop talking. This is a mistake that kills employee engagement. Listen well and follow through.

4. Educate your Team: The benefit of education goes without saying. But it is truly astonishing how many companies and organizations have staff that just don’t know why they do what they do. And, I’m not talking about how they do their jobs. How many of you have heard, “we’ve always done it this way”? While there is a lot of negativity that surrounds that saying, there is also opportunity. I know what some of you are thinking. Yes, it presents you with an opportunity to change things – wrong. The first few times I heard my employees say this, I dug a little deeper. The more questions I asked, the more I realized that these really good people just didn’t understand the WHY as to what they were doing. At the highest level, I had to get my team to understand that is was ‘ok’ to share information. For so many, it was a big secret to share how decisions made at each individual levels had an impact on the fiscal health of the program. Sharing anything related to finance was voodoo. Further exploration uncovered that a lot of people didn’t know that most of the best practices that we had established as a program were mostly derived from the need to maintain compliance with regulations as set forth by the State of Pennsylvania. The more we teach our team members the WHY behind what they do, the more empowered they are to do their job correctly and with pride. This really came as a ‘no-brainer’ to me. And the most beautiful thing about this is that this new way of thinking has been adopted organization-wide. Huge WIN!

5. Stay Authentic and Humble: An effective leader must be vulnerable enough to have an authentic connection to others, charismatic enough to engage others and humble enough to realize that true leadership involves being of service to others. Leadership is not a title, it’s a way of life. An authentic leader tends to be more interested in empowering employees than they are in money or personal power. These type of leaders tend to be guided by compassion and heart in everything they do. Remaining authentic allows you to not be afraid to admit mistakes and work to overcome shortcomings. This requires constant self-reflection which contributes to staying grounded and becoming a better you each day. One of my favorite sayings is “every day you come to work is another job interview to keep your job”. Remaining authentic and humble helps remind me of this daily.

When leaders show a commitment to the growth of others, the same primal emotions are tapped in those who have been affected. Employees are motivated to reciprocate, expressing their gratitude or loyalty by going the extra mile. If you want to inspire the best from your team, advocate for them, and support their training and promotion.

It’s through daily experiences as a leader that I realize I have absorbed so much. Yet, I still have so much more to learn. Never stagnate in your development. Take the time to invest in your future. Attend seminars, participate in workshops, webinars, podcasts and other professional development events. Talk to other leaders and see how they do things; exchange ideas.

The more you continually evaluate yourself and your practices and search for as much information on leadership as possible, the more you will be able to keep up with changing times and the better leader you will be for it.