From Stage Fright to the Power of Authenticity
This is to share the story of my journey and the difference it made to my professional success and personal happiness. These days I use the insights I’ve gained to help me write effective speeches and PowerPoints for others and/or to coach them – from CEOs and their teams to Fathers of the Bride – on achieving greater comfort, confidence and impact with an audience.
So how do you, yourself, feel about standing on a stage, looking out at a crowd and delivering your thoughts to everyone staring back? For the first decades of my life, that was impossible for me, without feeling sick to my stomach.
There is a name for the dread of public speaking: “glossophobia.” I’ve known for decades about surveys showing that many people fear an audience more than other phobias … like the fear of heights, darkness, death or, in my case, the dentist’s drill.
Having had extreme “stage fright” for years, I changed in a big way after some transformational experiences. Not only did I learn to hold the attention of an audience – even one as large as 5,000 people. Also, to my surprise, I actually learned to enjoy it!
The single most important lesson I’ve learned – and I’ll tell you how I learned it – is to harness the power of one’s own authenticity when delivering a speech or presentation. That lesson, in itself, has made a tremendous difference for me and for many others I’ve worked with.
I didn’t start out with that understanding, however. I grew up in Beaufort, SC – on a small, beautiful island by the Atlantic. But I had the challenge of being “different.”
Early on, I became aware that, in our mostly Baptist town, many people around me – children included – looked down on me for being Jewish, set apart from most others. What’s more, I had skipped a grade – leaving the second for the third grade only one month into the school year. So, I was younger than all my classmates.
I was also a major geek with zero athletic talent or training. During recess each day, with no friends to talk to or play with, I hid in embarrassment behind the oleander bushes against the Beaufort Elementary School walls.
Would you expect that such a boy would grow up and be able, someday, to hold an audience of 5,000 comfortably in his hands? Young Michael S. Greenly never would have guessed!
Years later, however – after Duke University and a move to New York City – I was achieving success in corporate life. I had become Assistant Publisher at Scholastic, Inc., the respected source of books, magazines and other educational materials for schools and homes worldwide
But publishing couldn’t earn me the income to which I aspired in order to afford my passion for Broadway theater. So, I started going to NYU – it took six years of night school! – to get my M.B.A. in Marketing & International Marketing. And I changed my career to consumer packaged goods. First, I became a promotional copywriter at Lever Brothers and eventually earned the unusual chance to transfer into brand management. (If you’re selling detergent or toothpaste, branding and Marketing is everything!)
With the help of the expert training I was fortunate to receive, I acquired a range of “techniques” for effective presentations. A few among them …
I learned never to be one of those speakers who “wander,” tracing a restless path as they talk.
If you don’t know this yet, I promise that you will be more effective and convincing if you plant yourself on-stage like a steadfast pillar of authority, the Tree of Knowledge … moving across stage only when there’s an important new point to be made, or a change in mood, and then re-planting yourself. You don’t have to stay “stuck” forever, but every move on-stage needs to feel motivated by content, not by restlessness.
It doesn’t matter if this feels artificial to you at first. After all, you’re “acting” — giving a “performance.” You’re not simply being real, but you’re making it feel that way. I’ll say more about this in a bit.
The best advice is the simplest: give yourself permission to be you. If you talk with your hands naturally, then do! If you don’t use your hands in “real life,” don’t try to fake it on-stage.
Audiences crave a connection with anyone addressing them. Otherwise, you become just part of a “show” — including your gestures – without having created real engagement with your listeners.
The most important guidance is to let your mind and voice be in sync with your words. If you feel – not just think but feel — the meaning of your words when you say them … your audience will feel it, too. They’ll sense and believe in your genuineness as you experience it, yourself.
So, in whatever way your hands move (or don’t) when you’re expressing your own message … that’s how your hands should be on-stage.
“How do I move on-stage?” and “What do I do with my hands?” are two of the most frequent questions I encounter when I’m coaching someone new.
Having learned “basics” like these, I began giving reasonably effective presentations to my colleagues and to the staffs of the departments I ran. Secretly, however, I never felt at home with the experience of giving a speech. I remained a victim of glossophobia.
Until … the major “aha” changed my life.
That occurred years later, after I followed a friend who had left Lever for Avon Products, Inc., a much more people-oriented company than Lever. (They taught me a lot about marketing but felt like a military bunker.) In a way, it was strange for someone like me – secretly shy and insecure – to join a company filled with so many apparent extroverts at Avon.
Avon’s business model was famous for an emphasis on motivation that inspired its vast network of independent sales reps to service their customers, even on the hottest, coldest or most difficult of days. I found myself thriving under leaders who were quick to acknowledge how hard and how intensely I strove to be excellent.
A few years later, I was put in charge of approving every aspect of 300 new products a year – each individual concept, trademarked name, product formulation, package design, promotional positioning and so on. Later I ran the merchandising department, responsible for the profit and loss of the entire U.S. product line and its biweekly sales campaigns.
The exposure was remarkable – from leading a class on direct selling communications in Tokyo, to giving a speech in French to sales managers in Marseilles. All the while, however, I suffered my private “stage fright” before every presentation. Until my “aha” moment.
That came only after I was promoted to Vice President of Field Support, with all communications for the U.S. sales force under my purview. Once again, I was “the youngest” – in this case, they said, the youngest VP in the history of this century-old company.
I was whisked up to the executive floor and given a lavish budget to redecorate the office to my taste – one of the perks of being an Avon VP. Every inch of my surroundings – carpeting, couch, desk, guest chairs – was designed to my specifications: an astonishing luxury for a kid from a tiny island down South.
But old insecurities haunted me still. They were amplified by the presence of an established VP down the hall who soon began to feel like a rival … a competitor in what was supposed to be a united team of Officers Together.
I’ll call him Big Guy, since if he wasn’t precisely 6’8”, he was nonetheless an unusually tall and towering man with a huge and overwhelming personality. He was the extrovert’s extrovert, fearless in displaying his (undeniable) creativity and charisma.
At that point, he was in charge of creating the Avon sales brochure – 22 million magazines published every two weeks, filled with money-making ads with “specials” on products, available only during that “campaign.” My role was to motivate the field to use his selling tools to produce the greatest possible revenue.
Part of my new assignment was to be in charge of the August Conference – the annual sales meeting for District Sales Managers from around the country. By the time they headed back home, they were to be pumped up with enthusiasm and “belief,” ready to ignite passion within the hundreds of reps they managed locally.
Not only was I responsible for producing the meeting to achieve that result. As the VP in charge, I also was required to give a speech of my own … from the same stage where I’d observed and been in awe of Big Guy, delivering his booming, Carnival Barker performances in full strut.
The familiar dread of public speaking came back to haunt me, as I started planning the Conference and my remarks. What a timid little mouse I would surely seem like, in contrast to Big Guy. The more I realized that I could never be like him – that I would fail if I tried – the more miserable I became.
Until … it clicked in my brain that, instead of trying to be a pale imitation of Big Guy, what I actually needed to be was the best version of myself.
Off-stage I am his opposite in many ways. It’s simply not within me to bully or badger someone to achieve my goals, nor to be strident or flamboyant. One friend named me years ago, “the most earnest person on the Eastern Seaboard” – intensely sincere, but much too polite and empathetic to overwhelm others, even as a negotiating technique.
Of course, my on-stage rival’s style worked beautifully for him. I had witnessed for years how brilliantly dynamic he was on-stage. But as with shoes that won’t fit, I suddenly understood that his way of presenting would be awkward and uncomfortable for me.
That fundamental idea – being true to myself instead of straining to be a pale imitation of someone else – is stupidly simple and obvious to me now. But what a difference it made when I applied it!
When the time came for my motivational message — my turn to inspire — I didn’t try to be flashy like my colleague. Instead, I addressed the audience in a simple and personal way. I recalled my first week with the company – when they sent me to Iowa to see what “direct selling” was really like.
Here is the story I told …
You know enough about me now, and my shy and lonely childhood, to imagine how mortifying it was for me, on my first day in the field – to knock on strangers’ doors for “cold call” selling. I did my best to simulate a cheerful “Avon Calling!” greeting … at least to those who were home. But it was an excruciating day. I got a first-hand sense of how difficult and intimidating life could be for a new Avon rep.
Only one customer actually bought from me – a single bottle of nail polish. I was grateful for the sale, as pitifully small as it was.
As I reminisced about that experience in my speech to the District Manager audience, I recalled how amazing it had been – on my subsequent day in Iowa – to travel around with the best sales rep in the region. Her selling effectiveness was completely different from mine. Her customers welcomed her as they would a delightful friend. They trusted her, depended on her and – it was clear – they truly liked her.
After our day together … after I’d seen how remarkably successful Avon’s distribution channel could be … this outstanding rep praised her Manager for the training and encouragement that had led to what I witnessed. Now that she brought home even more income than her factory-worker husband, she told me, he viewed her with new respect and appreciation. This enthusiastic “Avon Lady” had become his equal in the family.
Just as meaningful to her was the way her children looked up to her now. (Remember, this was decades ago with fewer business opportunities for women.) She took enormous pleasure in her kids’ awareness that Mom was a much more powerful and capable figure than they had imagined.
But the most pivotal change in her life, she said – as her comments moved and excited me about the company I had joined – was the self-esteem she had gained. She directly attributed her newfound pride and happiness to her supportive Manager.
While sharing this story on-stage with my sales management audience, I did not gallivant across the space trying to simulate the extroverted “showman” I’ll never be. Instead I consciously allowed myself to get back in touch with the real emotion I had felt in discovering how my new company had enhanced an Iowa housewife’s life … thanks to the training and guidance of her Manager.
As I recalled and re-experienced those feelings under the spotlight, while praising my sales management audience for the daily impact they had on the lives of those they led … I heard sniffles and occasional sobs from around the giant hotel ballroom. I knew beyond doubt that I was having a significant impact on my audience, simply by being “me” … sincere, earnest and in touch with my genuine feelings.
Afterward, countless attendees came up to grasp my hands or give me hugs. Over and over they said: “one of the best speeches ever!” That crucial lesson, about the power of being true to one’s essence, has been incredibly useful ever since, both on and off stage.
When I write speeches for executives these days, that insight helps me live up to the slogan I developed for my Internet ads: “Sound like yourself … only better.” And when I coach executives – many of whom are secretly as nervous as I used to be — I draw on my story to help them find new poise and security as they speak.
Yes, there are “techniques” and “tricks” for being effective on-stage: how to stand, when to move, what to do with your hands, how to modulate your voice, etc. These even involve details like how to turn from one page of your script to the next, if you’re standing at a podium and working from a paper copy. Or how to use a teleprompter, so that you – not the machine’s operator – remain confidently and smoothly in control.
One imperative I’ve learned, which many presenters underestimate, is the importance of the right kind of rehearsal … both quantity and quality.
You want to rehearse your text so often that you know the material well enough to be comfortable and un-strained, looking up from the page and finishing a sentence before looking down for the next cue.
This is not the same as “memorizing” a word-for-word script, even though many regulated industries require lawyer-vetted scripting. Having to rely solely on memory puts tremendous pressure on a speaker and requires a greater investment in time and technique for natural, relaxed delivery.
The way you rehearse can make a surprising difference during your ultimate presentation.
Of much greater consequence than the number of times you rehearse is how you do it. The more “real” you can make each run-through in your mind, the more confident and effective you’ll be in front of your audience.
Forget forever about reviewing the words of your speech in silence. NO! That misses the point. Making rehearsal real means actively envisioning everyone in front of you – every time you rehearse – and always addressing them aloud, with the same energy you expect to use on-stage.
Again: rehearse aloud, including imaginary eye contact with your pretend audience. (Good quality rehearsal is fatiguing – like a real presentation.)
The right kind of rehearsal also means being as conscious of your pacing and variety as you would want to be in front of in-person listeners … every single time you rehearse. Making each rehearsal as much like “the real thing” as you can, will pay off in your eventual delivery.
The paradox of being effective in delivering a speech is learning to be authentic on the one hand … while remembering that a speech is also a “performance.” It’s both real and artificial, at once.
It takes focus, energy and the right kind of rehearsal to effectively project yourself as you speak. Many speakers write notes to themselves in their texts: reminders during delivery to SMILE … show ENERGY …
be FRIENDLY, etc.
One needs to be a “bigger” version of one’s self in front of hundreds of people or more. It will not work to address an audience in the same way you might chat with a friend over coffee. The physical gap between you and your audience is psychological, too. Your audience will not be aware of it, but it affects their ability to maximally “connect” with you.
The literal gap is about height (you’re standing, they’re sitting) and distance (between the front row and where you stand.) To overcome the gap requires most presenters to be more energized, with more presence, than they ever would be off-stage. You want each member of the audience to feel as though you’re talking to and connecting directly and personally with them … and to feel as though you’re not as far away as, in fact, you are.
It can require a change of mindset to be one’s own authentic self – while, paradoxically, also being better and bigger on stage. But the core truth in everything I use in coaching my clients, is the one that changed me and my life: drawing on and making the most of the inherent power of who I am … never trying to be an imitation of someone else, no matter how effective that other person might appear to be.
So when you’re faced with the challenge of giving a speech … no matter how tense or fretful you feel … take stock of who are. For real. Connect to the truth at the heart of your personal brand. Be in touch with your genuine essence as you speak.
As I’ve mentioned, there are a number of “tips” that can help one be more effective – more than I have space for here. But the single most important technique is that simple but essential mindset – finding the courage to be your own real self, onstage (only “bigger.”)
I can tell you with certainty: it is totally possible to make that change. And it’s very satisfying when you do. It can make all the difference in enabling you to hear one of the sweetest sounds on earth: the applause that you have earned for who you actually are.
It gives ME satisfaction to share what I’ve learned as I coach my clients — whether a single exec or a team. But it’s even more satisfying when I hear from them AFTER they’ve experienced what I have: learning to use “The Power of Authenticity” for real succes on-stage.
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