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Why Finding Comfort in the Discomfort is Key to Confident Public Speaking

Why Finding Comfort in the Discomfort is Key to Confident Public Speaking

The phrase ‘old habits die hard’ exists for a reason. Especially when it comes to confident public speaking.

Making the decision to actively change your communication style can be daunting.  Even so, you’re ready to commit to making a change.  Maybe you’ve reached this point on your own.  Or a subtle suggestion from a colleague or friend that did the trick.  Or a not-so-subtle suggestion from your boss.  Regardless, you’re committed to doing what it takes to achieve your new public speaking style.Yet undoing old habits is difficult.  And changing how you speak when speaking publicly can feel counterintuitive to the way you’ve always known.  

So how can you overcome these uncomfortable sensations? And avoid them derailing you from achieving your communication goal? Acknowledge that different doesn’t equal bad.

A few weeks ago, a quirky client with a goofy sense of humor was preparing for a high-stakes pitch to potential investors. I encouraged her to employ a more direct and confident tone. She expressed concern that delivering her pitch in this manner felt “false”. And what’s more, seemed imprudent. Why would she want to purposely exclude the part of her personality that she found ingratiated her to many people?

After successfully explaining how self-deprecating quips and unrehearsed comic relief could easily backfire(!) we spoke at length about finding comfort in the discomfort.  In other words, communicating differently in order to effectively get what you want may feel like “not being yourself” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Awkward sure.  But an important indicator that you’re actively working on implementing the change you set out to achieve.

Maybe you are often complimented on your warm and easy-going nature.  Or lauded for your ability to quietly and deeply focus on a task.  Yet these same characteristics that make you ‘you’ may not serve you when public speaking.  And letting go of them can be uncomfortable.

Most detrimental public speaking habits tend to rise to the surface making them easier to identify and correct.  

Some that come immediately to mind: overuse of hand gestures.  Employing unnecessary fillers such as, “like” and “sort of. Formulating a response before the other person has finished sharing their thought. But for many of us, beneath these superficial facets of our communication style live characteristics deeply rooted to our sense of self.  Which can be linked to powerfully potent feelings such as fear and our sense of self-worth.  Examples include the sound of your own voice. Making direct eye contact to invite your audience’s gaze.  The cadence and pace of your speech.  Even something as simple as standing up straight when speaking publicly can trigger feelings of intense vulnerability.

In his recent article for Forbes, “Communicating Effectively In Times of Change,” David Villa shines a light on the importance of a strong sense of self when working to lead external change. “I believe that all great leaders possess an understanding of their own behavior [and an] understanding of their own thoughts and feelings. I feel strongly that the same holds true with internal, self-propelled change as well.

Embracing the sound of your voice as it fills the room, slowing down and giving your audience time to absorb your ideas – can trigger discomfort.  Reminding yourself that this discomfort is not bad but quite the opposite is important.  It’s proof that you are doing the hard work required to replace longstanding bad habits with good ones and are taking control of the impression you want to make.



Want to have presence? (Hint: It’s about being present)

Want to have presence? (Hint: It’s about being present)

Learn how to harness the power of presence.

Our clients ask us to help them in many different ways. They want to articulate their thoughts, think on their feet, harness nerves when speaking in public, and speak with confidence. But one of their most common requests is that they want to have presence.

People believe that presence is something you’re either born with or you’re not. They believe it can’t be taught. Some fear that if they don’t have it, there’s something wrong with them. They couldn’t be more wrong. We watch our clients improve presence right before our eyes all of the time.

It’s true that presence means something different for each person. Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy describes presence as “the state in which we stop worrying about the impression we’re making on others and instead adjust the impression we’ve been making on ourselves.” It’s not as elusive as you think. It’s a tool and a muscle—just like communicating and speaking in public. With practice, anyone can learn how to harness the power of presence.

So, what is presence? 

Presence is the alignment of awareness, intention and action. 

Communicating and speaking in public can be overwhelming for all of us. Throw in the pressure “to have presence” and it can be a recipe for disaster. Anytime something is overwhelming, break it down into smaller pieces. First, work on your awareness: Practice observing yourself and others without judgment. Second, be intentional: Set a specific intention and know what you want to get out of an interaction. And lastly, take action: Practice and rehearse for an upcoming opportunity and go out and do it!

Attention must be paid. 

Before I started my mindfulness practice, I would often miss social cues and important plot points. I realized I was living in my head, listening to my internal soundtrack instead of paying attention to the outside world. Presence is about giving your attention 100% to something outside of yourself—people like attention, so if you pay attention to them, they are more likely to like you.

The danger of multitasking.

We’re way too good at multitasking. We’re checking our phone while speaking to a colleague while editing a blog post. When communicating, multitasking can hurt us more than help us. Unfortunately, doing one thing at a time does not come naturally to us, so we have to practice it. Stick with a task until completion—from the small (looking up that restaurant) to the big (finishing that blog post). Read Tim Urban’s eye-opening series on procrastination here.

It’s about being present. 

We busy ourselves reading books on mindfulness and we beat ourselves up for not meditating. Even when we do make a point of it, we beat ourselves up for not meditating for the full ten minutes and when we do, we beat ourselves up for not being able to “clear our minds” enough. This all defeats the purpose! It took me a few years of meditating to realize that it’s not about getting rid of thoughts or feelings—instead, it’s about fixing and releasing attention without judgment (which—you guessed it—takes practice). Practice being present—being aware of physical sensations like the breath, or those uncomfortable palpitations or sweaty palms—without judgment. If you’re new to meditation, I recommend Headspace or Meditation Lite. And read D.G. Watson’s post on how meditation can help you overcome your fear of public speaking here.

Practice Presence 

It takes work and attention, but practicing these tools will help you improve your presence. Pick one or two activities a day and be truly present (brushing your teeth or washing dishes are good places to start). Pay attention to the way your breath causes your stomach to go in and out when breathing, or the feeling of your feet against the floor or in your shoes. Be genuinely present with the gentleman who pours your morning cup of coffee. When you get distracted (which you inevitably will) return to the interaction or the moment without beating yourself up. Slowly and surely, you will increase your span of presence and the muscle will strengthen.

Most valuable thing Warren Buffett owns?  A degree in public speaking.

Most valuable thing Warren Buffett owns? A degree in public speaking.

What’s the only diploma the 3rd richest person in the world has hanging in his office?  

It’s from Dale Carnegie’s public speaking course issued to one Mr. Warren Buffett in 1951.  Buffett credits it as “the most important degree I have.”  Even at the young age of 20, Buffett was smart enough to understand that it didn’t matter how much of a financial genius he was.  He knew if he didn’t invest in his public speaking skills he wouldn’t be able to share his expertise with others.  And that would mean not achieving the success he envisioned for himself.  What kind of success do you envision for yourself?What role does communication and public speaking play on your path to achieving it?  

So Why Don’t We Invest In Ourselves More?

Why do many of us shy away from investing in our communication skills in a significant way?  I think it’s common for people to think those who excel at speaking in public are just naturally natural. Or that performers are good liars.  Or that some people are just born hardwired with the ability to speak in front of others.  In my opinion, none of these are true.  Communication is a muscle.  And just like any muscle it takes time to build and strengthen.  More than likely the underlying cause why people avoid practicing their public speaking skills is fear of discomfort and the unfamiliar.  So much so that sometimes it takes a goal like wanting to be a millionaire by the age of 35 to push us past whatever’s holding us back and sign up for the public speaking course.

An Investment in your public speaking skills is an investment in yourself.

At Bespoken we believe that developing effective communication skills is something that positively influences all aspects of a person’s life.  The ability to communicate confidently will support you from informal conversations with colleagues all the way to full-scale public presentations.

One way to warm up to the idea of formally practicing your communication skills is by making a list of all the possible opportunities you have to communicate publicly.  It may surprise you how many options there are.  Sharing an idea during a staff meeting.  When you’re having your weekly check-in with your boss.  Taking a potential client out for lunch.  Then, of course, there are the more formal opportunities – presenting or speaking in front of a live audience.  Think about what it would be like if each one of these encounters was rewarding and successful.  It would be pretty great, wouldn’t it?

If you’re reading this article chances are you’re contemplating working with a communication coach or want to improve your communication skills.  Take a moment and be honest with yourself.  If you haven’t taken the plunge already, why is that?  What exactly are you afraid of?   “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”–Aude Lorde.

Hate the sound of your voice? It’s not you, it’s science!

Hate the sound of your voice? It’s not you, it’s science!

Is listening to recordings of your voice unpleasant?

One of the best ways to hone your public speaking skills or presentation skills is to record your voice when you practice.  Listening to the playback helps highlight verbal crutches you may want to eliminate such as, ‘um’, ‘like’, and ‘so’.  It also provides a way to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and ask yourself: When do I sound the most clear and concise? At what points do I lose focus or lack volume?  When trying to emphasize a particular thought am I straining vocally?  These things become easier to identify and fix when you use a recording of yourself to prepare. Yet many of us would rather eat glass than listen to the recorded sound of our own voice.

It doesn’t even sound like me.

Many of our clients say they don’t like the sound of their own voice.  I often attribute this to previous negative public speaking experiences.  Maybe that failed book report from fourth grade is haunting you.  Or the time you crashed and burned giving the speech at your grandmother’s 75th birthday.  But it turns out bad past experiences are not the primary culprit – science is!

Jonah Bromwich, a reporter for the New York Times recently explored why so many of us find the sound of our own voice off-putting.  Bromwich chatted up John J. Rosowski, a professor and researcher at Harvard Medical School who focuses on the middle ear and William Hartmann, a physics professor at Michigan State University specializing in acoustics and psychoacoustics. (Side bar: how fascinating is the concept of psychoacoustics?  A whole branch of psychology devoted to the “psychological and physiological responses associated with sound”?!?)

Ok, so according to Hartmann, because our vocal cords vibrate when we speak we experience the sound of our own voice internally.  The vibrations of our voice “are conducted through our bones and excite our inner ears directly.”  To make things even wilder, other factors influencing how we sound to ourselves include the interaction of these vibrations with “cerebrospinal fluid, the clear liquid that sits within the brain and spine.”  More science!

Why do I sound so weird to myself?

Here’s the thing: the most typical pathway we experience sound through is external.  Vibrations from the air pass through the “chain of our hearing systems, traversing the outer, middle and inner ear.”  When we hear a recording of ourselves our brain experiences the sound of our own voice through an entirely different channel than it normally does – hence the weirdness.  This just further supports Bespoken’s belief that there are no ‘good’ speakers or ‘bad’ speakers. It also explains why many of our clients shy away from taping themselves when practicing their public speaking and presentation skills.

Now that you know why you dislike the sound of your own voice, and that it’s perfectly natural and normal, you have one less excuse not to utilize this effective and useful tool the next time you’re preparing to speak publicly.

Conquer Your Public Speaking Fear in the New Year

Conquer Your Public Speaking Fear in the New Year

A Practical Guide for How to Speak in Public 

You stand up to speak. Your mouth is dry, your heart is beating out of your chest, and you can’t think straight. Many people avoid public speaking all together—in fact, 74% of us are terrified of it and many prefer death to the thought addressing an audience.

It makes sense. Not too long ago, you could be exiled for saying something disagreeable to your fellow humans, and you would be 26% more likely to die if that happened. It’s no wonder then that public speaking triggers our fight-or-flight response.

Just because public speaking makes you feel like you’re about to die doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it (promise!). The key is not to eliminate nerves—that’s setting yourself up for failure. Instead, institute a system that puts you in the driver’s seat of your own voice and makes you feel in control.

We believe that great speakers are made, not born. If you have never spoken in public (or if you have and it didn’t go well) making the decision to overcome your fear is step number one.

In January of last year, Na’ilah Amaru made a decision to overcome her fear of public speaking. Seven months after coming to Bespoken, she addressed the nation onstage at the Democratic National Convention to introduce Hillary Clinton with poise, power and precision.

Na’ilah exceeded her expected goal but we recommend starting small—public speaking doesn’t have to mean addressing a crowd at a podium on national television. It can be speaking up in a meeting, introducing yourself at a networking event, or pitching to a group of investors. Choose a speaking engagement that is achievable and set yourself up to succeed.  Schedule a meeting, apply to a pitch night, or sign up to speak at a community board meeting.

Overwhelmed? Break it down

Deciding to speak in public is a big step so pat yourself on the back! It’s a huge undertaking, and one that takes preparation and practice. Creating a plan for yourself moves public speaking from the scary abstract to the doable specific. Break the process down into actionable steps as much as possible. Here’s a suggested starting point:

Identify your audience

Are you addressing eager students or seasoned executives? Understanding your audience helps you pinpoint their needs, which takes the focus off of you.

Name your objective

Specify what you want your intended audience to do immediately after hearing you speak. Do you want them to hire you? Go to your website? Buy your product? Sign up for your newsletter? Be specific!

Familiarize yourself with the environment

Will you be onstage, in a boardroom or in an elevator?  How big is the room and will there be a microphone? Envisioning the space during the preparation process is essential to success.

See content creation as a journey

Knowing what you want to say takes time. Jot down some ideas and let it soak for a few days. Create an outline of bulleted items you want to include. Perfection is the enemy of good and speaking is dynamic so don’t finalize anything!


We know that practice is essential and yet, we avoid it and wing it anyway. Deciding to actually work on it sets you up to succeed. Your goal should not be to get it right but instead to practice so you can’t get it wrong. Don’t expect to hit it out of the park the first time you stand to speak it out loud. It’ll be messy, and that’s the point: You’re figuring it out!

Harness nerves

The only thing to fear is fear itself, and fearing nerves gives them power. Accept that nerves are a part of the process. Ask others what their reactions are to public speaking and you’ll find that most people experience similar physical sensations, making you feel less alone. They may call it adrenaline and you may call it anxiety but it’s all the same. Speak it out while running on a treadmill to get comfortable in the discomfort.

Seek feedback

Don’t let the event itself be the first time you do it. Join Toastmasters or ask a trusted friend to come be an outside eye. Better yet, stage a test run in the safety of your own home and welcome constructive criticism on your turf.

Be present

Presence onstage is the exchange of energy, so make connecting with your audience your primary goal. Make eye contact. Breathe. Be in your body. Know that nothing can go wrong because you have prepared.

Still overwhelmed? Break it down even more, and most importantly, make the plan your own. You know yourself better than anyone and you will only succeed if you feel ownership over the process.

Bespoken’s Year-in-Review: A Powerful Presence

Bespoken’s Year-in-Review: A Powerful Presence

It gives us tremendous joy and satisfaction to help you speak your story and be powerfully present.

This year, we helped hundreds of entrepreneurs, creatives, professionals and leaders improve communication and presentation skills.  Thank you to our clients and collaborators for choosing us to be a trusted outside eye in your personal and professional development. Here are just a few of the folks we helped to have presence this year:

We helped Barbara Bush and her global staff at Global Health Corps communicate their vital mission to develop global health leaders.


We were chosen to be the official coaches for the Columbia Business School Public Speaking Association where we helped dozens of MBA students learn how to speak in public.


We taught at the Made in NY Media Center helping media tech entrepreneurs speak their story.


We helped the Hospital Services team at LiveOnNY communicate in life-or-death, high stakes environments.


We teamed up with Lisa Allison Pertoso to help women speak with intention and without apology. Stay tuned for our next collaboration with Lisa to be announced shortly!


We helped the board and staff of the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback! convey their mission with confidence.


We appeared on the Real Simple podcast, Adulthood Made Easy, to talk about how to find your voice and own it.

We can’t wait to see how you use your voice in the New Year.  Our training is customized for individuals and groups.  Get in touch and choose to BEspoken.

Mindfulness: Get Your Head in the Game

Mindfulness: Get Your Head in the Game

What is Mindfulness?

Ever hear a voice in the back of your head when public speaking saying things like, “Do I sound nasal right now?” or: “Why did I scratch my nose?!? Did that make me look unprofessional?”  You are not alone.  I recently came across an interesting article in the New York Times about how Phil Jackson, president of the NY Knicks, leads the team in mindfulness sessions during practice.  The article caught my eye as I’ve been thinking about “mindfulness” with increased frequency since becoming a communication coach.

What is mindfulness? And why would the president of a major professional sports franchise think it a valuable tool for his world-class athletes? Psychology Today calls mindfulness, “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad.”  Clients come to us wanting to learn how to speak in public.  They often ask us how to stop judging themselves in the moment when public speaking in front of an audience.  Silently critiquing your performance while public speaking (or playing at Madison Square Garden) is a sure-fire way to to throw you off your game.  In a blink of an eye it can unravel all of your thoughtful preparation.  It’s important to acknowledge being overly self-aware is a natural part of public speaking.  It’s also important to understand how to diffuse it.

Mindfulness + Improvisation

George Mumford, who also led the Knicks in mindfulness exercises likens mindfulness to, “improvisation, where actors and actresses confront the situations thrust on them and try to function inside those limits.”  He goes on to say the goal of mindfulness exercises is to “allow athletes to reflect and to slow down the mind — to get it into game shape.”  When we employ practical theater techniques to help people hone effective communication skills we often focus on techniques important for successful improvisation.  Most notably how to maintain a connection when the unexpected happens. What I like about Mumford’s interpretation of mindfulness is that it releases the [speaker, performer, athlete] from blame or judgement attached to self-assessing in the moment.

Mumford goes on to assert “that when you’re performing at your best level, there’s usually a lack of self-consciousness.”  I could not agree more.  In the theater we often talk about “throwing it all away” when it comes time to perform.  If an actor is focused on the diction exercises she did during rehearsal to sharpen her “T’s” and “B’s” when performing she’s likely not focused on what she’s saying.  Or truly paying attention to her scene partner.  It’s important to trust the preparation you did with your communication coach (or at home in the mirror) will support you when it’s finally showtime.  Used in this way, mindfulness exists on a continuum of fostering trust in your communication skills and your ability to effectively stay focused when connecting with an audience.

Put It All Together

When you’re ready to work on techniques, including mindfulness, to retain effective focus when communicating in public get in touch about our coaching services.  Or check out Headspace and the wise thoughts of our friend D.G. Watson.  Or join the NY Knicks!

Put Yourself Out There: Networking With Ease

Put Yourself Out There: Networking With Ease

Your expertise and enthusiasm make you uniquely qualified to speak about your work so why is networking so hard?

We’re gearing up for “Put Yourself Out There,” a professional development training with NYU alumni at the NYU Wasserman Center for Career Development on Nov. 15 (NYU alumns join us! which has us thinking again about networking and how we can all stand to improve our business communication skills to achieve effective communication in a short amount of time.

For some, walking into a room full of strangers can be an uncomfortable experience in its own right and then add having to initiate conversation to the mix, well, then it becomes downright intimidating! For others, chatting up strangers may be the easy part but it’s challenging to talk about themselves and their work in a concise and compelling way.  The good news is that networking, just like public speaking, is a muscle and the more you practice it the stronger you’ll become.

Set An Intention

Before networking, or any situation where you have to speak in public, the best thing you can do first is set an intention.  Ask yourself, “What do I want to get out of this experience? Practice an elevator pitch?  Identify possible business partners?  Land a new client?” Being clear about what you want from your audience in advance will help position you to network in a more focused and efficient way.

Another thing that’s helpful to think about is a network as a shared connection (Can you hear me now?) which makes the experience more about a give-and-take and less about trying to impress the other person which can lead to an anxious or one-sided exchange (which is isn’t fun for anyone involved).

Engage in Active Listening

If you think of networking as a shared connection and exchange of energy between people you’ll find it promotes active listening.  When we actively listen to another person we are listening in order to learn instead of politely waiting for our turn to speak again.  Actively listening while networking may help you identify a potential [business opportunity, job lead, client prospect – you get the idea] that you could have missed otherwise.  Networking in order to experience a shared connection with another person will also encourage sharing information about yourself in a way that steadily moves you toward achieving your previously set intention.

Try It Out

As you try out these tips you’ll find they’ll work in any networking situation from an after-work happy hour to an industry-wide convention.  So, the next time you find yourself asking (or being asked) “So, what do you do?” you’ll be networking like a pro.

Unconscious Behaviors: Like, Just, Does that make sense?

Unconscious Behaviors: Like, Just, Does that make sense?

Let’s talk about unconscious behaviors.

Do you say Um, Like, So, I think? Kind of, Just, Uh, I mean? Does that make sense? Oh, sorry. You may be saying these things and not even realizing it.

Unconscious behaviors are the habitual tics and filler words that are ingrained in our default way of speaking. We all have our own unique combination on unconscious behaviors. Most of the time we’re completely unaware of them, but getting them under control can be key when considering how to have presence. They come from conditions in our environment, past experiences, nerves or Impostor Syndrome. They are how we compensate, they get in the way of effective communication skills, and they amplify under pressure.

What if I want to say Like?

You can say Like as much as you like (see what I did there?)—as long as you are intentional about it. There’s nothing wrong with apologizing, or saying Just—just make sure you are aware of it and use it with purpose. Behaviors without intention have a tendency to undermine our authority and can create an unclear outward perception.

Unconscious behaviors may be fine in casual, everyday conversation but when public speaking or working on presentation skills they can greatly detract from your message.

My own personal cocktail of unconscious behaviors include Absolutely!, Does that make sense? and So (listen to the Real Simple Adulthood Made Easy podcast where we talk all about it). What are your unconscious behaviors?


Kind of, Just, I think, Does that make sense? Habitual but often employed when we doubt ourselves. We give ourselves an out in case we’re not right.


You know, Uh, Um, Like. Environmental and ingrained, and sometimes unconscious imitation.


I’m sorry, etc.  We apologize with our physicality and tone too—read my article on it here.


Smiling is awesome but for some people it is a nervous reaction and can be anything but fun.

So, um, what do we do about it?

Hear it

You won’t be able to change a thing while those behaviors remain unconscious so the first step is to become aware of them. Working to improve your communication and presentation skills can raise your awareness enough to see them. Record yourself, or ask a trusted friend to be an outside eye (they can raise their hand—without judgment—whenever they hear you say it). Once you can hear it, you can change it, but there’s no point in beating yourself up until you can—we’re changing lifelong behaviors after all!

Replace it

Once you can hear it, you can do something else instead. It’ll be slow and steady but replacing it with a physical behavior—without judgment—will do the trick. Take a deep breath, or move your attention to your feet on the floor. Make eye contact. You can choose any physical behavior that works for you as long as it helps to ground you and is done with intention. When you notice those unconscious behaviors sneak in, don’t get mad at yourself. This is the work of changing habits. Be curious, not furious.

Personally, I replace my filler with a deep breath. Taking a deep breath makes me feel grounded and helps my voice carry further. It’s a win-win situation.

And there’s nothing as powerful as silence (when used intentionally, of course).