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Want to Win at Public Speaking?

Let your heart do the talking.

Want to overcome fear of public speaking? Let your heart do the talking. Pictured: Father Jerry Gallagher (my dad).

As the eldest daughter of a small-town preacher, I grew up witnessing first-hand what a lasting impact a captivating speaker could make. 

Dad is amazing in front of a group, and has always attracted a wide range of people – from all religious backgrounds and walks of life – to hear his messages each week. Relatable, inspiring, and authentic, he effortlessly delivers remarks that resonate. Even amidst tragedies like 9/11 or losses for our community (or for him personally), he has always managed to connect in a way that leaves everyone in the room awestruck. 

As I watched him build his following at church, I found myself onstage enjoying time in front of the “public” as well, albeit for very different reasons. I loved acting in high school plays, serving in leadership roles, and was a vocalist right into my adult years; few things felt more gratifying than a curtain call or a round of applause following a performance. 

Given Dad’s influence and my own passions, I never expected that the mere thought of public speaking could paralyze me. But at 24 years of age when I was asked to open a press conference for the first time, I had a rude awakening: my fear of public speaking was, as it is for most people, up there at the top of my list of phobias.

The fear extended to every nerve ending in my body; the anxiety was crippling. I felt as if I was on the verge of a major cardiac event and wanted to run for the hills. But I couldn’t. My paycheck depended on my ability to overcome this fear, and I had to somehow rise above it.

So…I looked to Dad.

I observed his sermons over the next few weeks, and here’s what I learned:

Preparation breeds self-confidence; a confident speaker is an effective speaker. Dad would often escape for long walks on Fridays and Saturdays to reflect on the message he needed to share at Sunday’s service. When back home, he would review key points with Mom, who listened deeply and gave him feedback. At times, he even turned to one or all of his 4 kids to ask if we’d be comfortable with him sharing a story about our family life to demonstrate a point. 

He took time to prepare. He crafted his message carefully. Rehearsed it, in part, for Mom, and probably in his head. Got comfortable with it. Looked for suggestions on how to improve it. Thought about it. Made notes. Considered how stories might be received. 

In preparing, he no doubt gained confidence – and by the time he got up to the pulpit, he was ready. You could feel that he believed deeply in what he was saying, which built trust. He was often animated, with strong presence and body language that engaged everyone. He always included some self-deprecating remarks that made people laugh, but balanced that with serious ideas and philosophies that made everyone think. And because he was prepared, he felt so good about what he was saying that he could look audience members in the eyes, as if he were talking directly to each individual. They felt that. They left wanting more. (I know because they told me so!)

But there was something else, beyond the time he took to prepare, that was perhaps even more important about his approach.

Dad speaks from the heart. He sees himself as a messenger. He’s always his authentic self, but it’s never about him. It’s about what he can leave with the people who are listening. How they feel, what they might think about afterwards – whether or not he can generate much-needed laughter or long overdue reflection. For him, it’s just heart-to-heart, human-to-human connection. 

While many of us fear public speaking, perhaps we need to look at it like that. 

Public speaking is not about any of us as speakers. It’s about those human connections we make through our words – words that have been prepared thoughtfully and deliberately, but that are delivered right from our hearts.

When I work with a client to craft remarks and rehearse for a public speaking engagement, of COURSE we work on strategies that are SELF-focused like posture, body language, how to navigate errors, how to project, and how to develop and deliver a message that has a nice blend of humor, emotion, and inspiration  – but all of this is done in context of creating an experience for the AUDIENCE. Yes. It’s about THEM, not the person holding the microphone.

Once you realize that your speech is not about you, the crippling fear of public speaking will likely be replaced with feelings of empowerment. It will rock your world and rock everyone else’s too.

So, take the lessons from Dad. PREPARE and you’ll feel confident instead of fearful (self-confidence and fear don’t typically co-exist). Reflect. Rehearse. Remember that your speech is not about you – it’s about how you make everyone else feel.

Let your heart do the talking. It’s really that simple.

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