Change your perspective: Often when I’m stressed about something, I find myself saying things like, “I have to give that big presentation” or “I have to call that difficult client.” There’s a sense of dread and duty weighing me down. If you fall in this trap, try shifting your perspective by changing “have to” to “get to.”
Asa part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing executive public speaking coach Jennifer Hennings.
Jennifer Hennings helps people say yes to the next level in their careers by breaking through their fear of public speaking. She trains leaders at organizations like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Salesforce, and Stanford Graduate School of Business, as well as numerous startups.
What makes Jennifer’s approach unique is she doesn’t naturally crave the spotlight—in fact, she’s an introvert who used to throw up before speaking and teaching. Over the past 20 years, she’s helped thousands of people speak up with confidence when it matters most.
Jennifer holds an MA in Education and a BA in English from Stanford University and an MA in Communication Studies from San Jose State University. Grab your copy of her free e-book, Public Speaking Fear Busters, at www.jenniferhennings.com.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Mystory starts in sixth grade, when I was throwing up in a trash can at my middle school before a huge presentation. As a kid, my deepest dream was to be an author. When I won a national writing contest and had a children’s book published, The Penny Doll, I thought it was a dream come true.
But what I didn’t know is that people expect authors to talk about their books and promote them. Suddenly I was being invited to speak to groups of hundreds of people, first at my middle school and then at events like the California Teachers Association annual conference. Every time, I’d be freaking out and getting sick in the bathroom beforehand.
Public speaking terrified me, but I kept saying yes to speaking opportunities because I hoped my fear would eventually go away. Then as an undergrad at Stanford 20 years ago, I worked as a public speaking tutor, and loved it so much I stayed at Stanford after graduation to manage the public speaking tutoring program.
I spent years teaching public speaking at Stanford and San Jose State University, and the whole time I had this weird love-hate relationship with it: I loved the feeling of teaching once I actually walked into a classroom, but I’d get really anxious and have to run to the bathroom before every class.
Not until my early 30s did I finally reach a point where I could say I actually loved public speaking. That’s also when I decided to start my public speaking coaching business.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
My own experience as an introvert who used to be terrified of public speaking inspired me to start my business as an executive public speaking coach. At first, I didn’t tell people about my own speech anxiety. I thought, “Who would want to work with a public speaking coach who’s afraid of public speaking?!” So instead I’d cite my credentials, my degrees from Stanford, the names of companies I’d worked with.
But one day, talking to a potential client, I mentioned that I used to be terrified of public speaking, and it completely shifted our conversation. She said, “You mean you’ve been scared too? Well, maybe there’s hope from me.”
That’s when I realized my fear isn’t a liability. It’s actually my greatest asset as a coach. My own fear of public speaking helps me empathize with clients and gives them hope too.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
When I was an anxious middle schooler, throwing up before my first big presentation about my recently published book, I remember turning to my mom and saying, “Tell them to take it all back. Take back the book, take back the award money. I don’t want to be a writer if it means I have to be a speaker.”
My mom, who is a very wise woman, gently nudged me forward and encouraged me to give the presentation anyway, even though I was afraid. She helped me discover a motto that lifts me up to this day: Feel the fear and do it anyway.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I remember learning an important lesson during my first public speaking class as a freshman at Stanford. At the time, I had really long hair, and when I watched the recording of my speech, I discovered I’d twirled my hair the entire five minutes of my talk. I looked like a nervous little kid. That one gesture totally undermined my credibility.
For years afterward, I tied my hair back during presentations to eliminate that distraction and to boost my executive presence. (I finally learned to speak without twirling my hair, but it took a lot of practice!) Ever since, I’ve used that story with clients to show them that with public speaking, small changes can make a big difference.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
When it comes to running your business, don’t be afraid to break the rules. There are so many things I’ve tried in my business that other coaches have told me “just aren’t done,” and those strategies have worked great for me. For example, I got tired of driving all over the San Francisco Bay Area in traffic to meet with clients at their workplaces. I had a fantasy of clients coming to my office for coaching, but all the other coaches I knew were driving to their clients. I worried my business would collapse if I stopped commuting.
But one day I started telling clients they had two options: come see me in my office or work with me remotely. And guess what? My business didn’t collapse. It just kept growing! So don’t be afraid to break the rules.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One of the books I love and quote all the time with public speaking coaching clients is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Lamott has a chapter in the book called “Shitty First Drafts,” which is all about breaking through perfectionism by producing a bad first draft. I tell clients, “Look, your first draft of this presentation is probably going to suck. And that’s OK. You can’t get to a great speech without first creating a shitty first draft.”
My clients are accomplished executives who usually have very high expectations for themselves. They’re discouraged by the way their fear of public speaking is holding them back, and it’s hard to take that first step toward progress. Giving themselves permission to start with a shitty first draft can be really liberating.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
When it comes to breaking through your public speaking fear, my favorite motto is: Feel the fear and do it anyway. I live by this motto because it’s proven true for me. I still get nervous before big presentations, but my anxiety doesn’t run the show anymore. I’ve learned to manage it, befriend it, and work through it.
That’s what I tell my coaching clients: You may always feel your anxiety, and that’s OK. You can feel nervous and still learn to speak up with confidence when it matters most.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Right now my big coaching focus is helping people feel more comfortable and confident on video calls, since that’s where we’re spending so much of our time these days. Many of the clients I work with are even more nervous about virtual presentations than they were about face-to-face public speaking. They’re wondering: How do I connect with people on a Zoom call? How do I keep people engaged when I can’t see them? How do I know when to speak up during an online meeting?
To help, I’ve been teaching a webinar called “How to Do Video Calls Like a Pro,” which teaches you how to look good, sound good, and feel good on video.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
Psychologist Carl Jung said, “What we resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” I really believe this, and three of my favorite ways to manage stress and anxiety focus on acknowledging it instead of resisting.
1) Name It: Imagine your anxiety as a person separate from you. Give your anxiety a name – maybe yours is a kid named Sam or an old woman named Francis. Then talk to it directly and tell it what it needs to hear.
You could say something like, “Hey, Francis, I know you’re just looking out for me and trying to keep me safe. But that crushing feeling in my chest isn’t helping me right now. I’m in the driver’s seat. I’ve got this. You can sit over there in the corner while I get my work done.”
2) Change your perspective: Often when I’m stressed about something, I find myself saying things like, “I have to give that big presentation” or “I have to call that difficult client.” There’s a sense of dread and duty weighing me down. If you fall in this trap, try shifting your perspective by changing “have to” to “get to.”
You can tell yourself, “I get to give that big presentation and have everyone hear my great ideas” or “I get to call that client and solve our problems so we can move forward.” Changing your language is a powerful way to change how you feel about a difficult task.
3) Acknowledge the stress or anxiety: Sometimes when I’m really anxious or stressed, I catch myself getting anxious about feeling anxious. It’s a whole other layer of stress I don’t need, and that isn’t helpful.
If this happens to you, try reminding yourself, “It’s OK to feel anxious. It’s OK to feel stressed.” This can help get you out of the negative anxiety spiral and give you more clarity of mind to tackle the task at hand.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
Clients come to me to break through their public speaking fear, and they’re often under tremendous pressure to perform well in stressful situations. Here are three strategies I recommend to perform well under pressure:
1) Use your power soundtrack: Instead of listening to spa music before a big presentation or meeting, crank up the music that makes you feel powerful and alive. Think of Michael Phelps before he swam in the Olympics: he always had his headphones on, swinging his arms in circles and pumping himself up. Whether you love rock, hip hop, or country, use music to get yourself excited before your big event.
2) Practice out loud: Clients often tell me they prepare for a presentation by thinking about what they want to say as they scroll through their slides. But thinking about what you want to say is as effective as thinking about going to the gym: it doesn’t do you any good.
Want a better way? Practice your ideas out loud. Don’t use a script. Use bullet points or a brief outline, and practice several times until your ideas become crisp, concise, and conversational.
3) Stick the landing: When elite gymnasts compete, they fight like crazy to stick their landings, no matter how wobbly they might be. Use this image when you’re practicing out loud: when you make a mistake, don’t stop and start over.
Instead, practice sticking the landing: pause, check your notes to find your place, and continue on gracefully without apologizing. Why? If you stay calm and act like your mistake is no big deal, that’s how your audience will feel about it too.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
I often teach my public speaking coaching clients an exercise called 4-square breathing. Start by breathing into your belly: put a hand on your abdomen and make sure you can feel your hand rise and fall as you inhale and exhale.
Then slowly begin a four-count breathing pattern: inhale for 1-2-3-4, hold for 1-2-3-4, exhale for 1-2-3-4, hold for 1-2-3-4. As you breathe in this four-count pattern, imagine yourself tracing the four sides of a square: you trace the first side as you inhale for 4, the second side as you hold for 4, etc.
This exercise can help you gain focus and control in your body when you’re stressed. By mentally tracing the four sides of the square as you breathe, you also give your nervous mind a simple task to focus on instead of dwelling on your anxiety.
I also love the Insight Timer app with its huge library of meditations.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
When it comes to focusing on a busy day, I make a list of everything I’d like to accomplish that day. This list is usually wildly unrealistic, which is why the next step is to rank the items on the list in order of importance. Then I start working my way down the list one task at a time, starting with the #1 most important item.
I never finish everything on my to-do list (who does?!), but at the end of the day I can at least feel good knowing I did the most important things instead of getting distracted by the easy (but often less important) items on the list.
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
One way I help clients break through their own public speaking fear is by developing the habit of an anxiety management routine, which is something that helped me a lot on my own journey. Pick two or three anxiety management strategies, maybe some of the ones I’ve mentioned, and practice them on a daily (or daily-ish) basis for 5 minutes a day total.
If we want these tools to help us when we’re stressed, we need to burn them into our muscle memory through frequent practice. That way, when you need them, they’ll feel like familiar friends.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
One of the bad habits I often work on with public speaking coaching clients is getting rid of filler words like “um.” The best way I know to stop bad habits is to first become aware of when you’re doing them. For example, maybe you speak confidently with your direct reports but you start saying “um” whenever you’re in front of your executive team.
The second part of changing that bad habit is to consistently make a small behavior change. In this case, every time you feel the impulse to fill a pause with “um,” just be silent instead. If you can consistently repeat that small behavior change, it can make a big difference in your executive presence.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
For me, flow happens most often when I’m working with a coaching client, teaching a workshop, or developing curriculum for a new workshop. These are the moments where I’m doing meaningful work, I’m doing it well, and I can see the positive impact of the work on my clients.
The biggest thing that helps me achieve flow is making time for it on my calendar. I can’t achieve those flow moments if I’m checking email 57 times a day or being interrupted by a million phone calls. So I try to designate different time blocks on my calendar for sales calls, emails, creative work, and face-to-face time with clients.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would help as many people as possible live the motto: Feel the fear and do it anyway. We’re often so worried about what other people will think of us that we’re too afraid to take risks, speak our truth, start new businesses, or follow our dreams.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
One of my heroes is Brené Brown, because she truly lives her message of openness and vulnerability. She brings such candor and humanity to her work and I admire her so deeply. I’d love to spend time with her to learn about how she summons the courage to be so fully herself in such a public role.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Check out www.jenniferhennings.com to join my Public Speaking Fear Busters community and be the first to receive new videos and blog posts.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.