F-ing Terrified of Public Speaking?

Join. The. Club. And don’t worry- it’s not a prerequisite to having an amazing practice. I don’t think I spoke publicly at all while I was in Seattle. I started doing a lot of public speaking when I got to Asheville and it really paid off. It’s not that I magically got over my fears and adored the attention (true story- I was so uncomfortable with attention that I had to take Klonopin for one of my wedding showers & my wedding. Luckily it was the right dose; I didn’t Sixteen Candles it). I still really have to rev myself up for it but it occurred to me that there weren’t a lot of people in my niche devoting time to public speaking in my new city. There was a need to fill and I knew that if I filled it, I would reap the rewards. I wanted to be successful more than I was willing to indulge my fear. I bought into that but still didn’t know HOW to not shake or lose my words. I set some talks up and started working on them.

What has Worked Before?

One way I got ready for these talks was an old pattern I used as a student: Over-preparation. Now, I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but for me over-preparing was the most effective tool to manage my anxiety when I was in school. It’s also entirely possible that I would do just as well winging it, but I’m just wired a little anxious and it wouldn’t feel doable to me. My thought was that if I was 100% prepared then I could soothe my anxiety with that fact and if I was nervous, it might make my talk at least 80% effective since at least I knew what I was talking about. And if I’m 80% effective, then at least I know they’re learning something. So, it’s a strategy to use, try it & see if it’s a fit.

What Would You Tell a Client?

I also did some research on the sites I already frequented. I saw this video Marie Forleo did with her honey, Josh.  And it dawned on me that I knew how to implement this! It was essentially Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I watched it the day before every talk as a reminder. And you know what, I was f-ing terrified when I started speaking, but it didn’t seem to matter as much. My hands shook and I talked too fast and I used the wrong words and I still got my point across and people still learned something. And at every talk there were moments when I looked out into the audience and saw that everyone was there with me, on my side.

Know Where to Focus

I’m also a sucker for positive reinforcement and I will take that in any form when I’m speaking. I am an active audience member, making eye contact, smiling, nodding, encouraging from row 2. I’m your public speaking dream audience. I look for those people. I call them the Smile-Nodders and every group I’ve ever talked to has had at least a handful. Look at those people. Do not look at the well put-together woman who seems to be smirking at you or the doctor who was on his laptop the whole time. You will probably find out that the smirking woman just has resting bitch face and raved about your talk to her coworkers. You will probably find out the doctor has ADHD and is learning in the way that works best for him. Don’t torture yourself with those people while you talk. Look at those Smile-Nodders and send them love. I actually got to meet one a few days after a talk at a girls’ night and I was sure to thank her profusely. Hopefully she didn’t find it too weird when I was like “Looking at you made me feel so much better! Thank you for smiling at me!”

Tune In To Your Pattern

I noticed a pattern in myself that even when the talk went well overall, I would spend a day or two raking myself over the coals about one small issue in the talk. Here’s an example: “They think I’m an idiot. I can’t BELIEVE I said CAT Scan instead of MRI. That doctor corrected me with such finesse that I’m not sure the other therapists noticed but every medical person there thought I was talking out of my ass. Unbelievable, Allison, way to fuck up.” That script repeated each time that memory surfaced for the next couple days. It didn’t matter that I’d gotten feedback from several different people who attended the talk that it was the most informative talk they’d had in a long time or that the consensus was that I was smart and really knew my stuff. Nope, 2 days of embarrassment and certainty that I had permanently ruined my reputation in a town I’d been in for 3 months. Luckily, I was already committed to other talks, so I did enough public speaking to see that this is just my pattern. So now I know that I’m going to nit-pick one or two things and the heat is going to rise from my chest to my face every time I think about it and in 2 days I will be done with it. That makes it all feel a lot less shameful.

So, Does Public Speaking Yield Referrals

Yes, if you’re speaking to the right people and providing them with information they actually want. The folks in the audience will send you the people that are a good fit for the talk, so if you don’t like working with troubled adolescents, don’t speak at a PTA meeting about how to encourage behavior change. Another word about that, don’t give talks about things you’re only moderately experienced in. If your first year practicum was in substance abuse and that semester taught you a lot, you’re probably not equipped to school certified addiction counselors. Research well so it’s not just a talk about your anecdotal evidence (unless it’s a seriously great case study). Your talk doesn’t have to be perfect, and in my experience therapists are quick to empathize with any performance anxiety and Smile-Nod at you, but it has to not suck. Don’t waste people’s time, get a feel for what the likely audience knowledge-base is, and put some work in.

Public Speaking also yields more requests for public speaking. Should you do it for free? My answer here is controversial, but yes. If you become famous with public speaking, sure, charge. But you’re trying to grow your practice, not launch an international speaking career. Plus, you have an opportunity to educate folks along the way because of your expertise with a population, treatment modality, or presenting concern, so you’re making life easier for your current and future clients.

Yes, I Have a Speaking Horror Story

I gave the same talk with a coworker 3 times that day to different groups of Resident Advisors. We said the exact same thing each talk— same powerpoint and everything. We’d given this talk together for years. For some reason Group #2 turned on me. Not us, me. Someone asked a question and was very verbal about not liking my answer.  There were eye rolls, immediate chatting with neighbors, and I lost them for the rest of the talk. My answer was sound: something seemingly-benign about communication. My response to the uproar was something like “It seems like that isn’t the answer you wanted. What about that feels uncomfortable?” Nothin. No eye contact. I tried. I failed.

I unhesitatingly gave the same answer to the next group when the same question was asked and it was fine. This was in 2008 and I still remember it like it was yesterday. I remember feeling completely baffled, totally confronted by being not-liked by people who weren’t afraid to show it, wishing there was something my coworker could do to save me, wanting to justify my answer. I could’ve stayed stuck with that memory and stayed off the stage but I didn’t and I’m so glad.

Your turn: Have you ever had a nightmare speaking experience? Or do you have a talk coming up you’re nervous about?  Leave a comment!


Allison Puryear is an LCSW with a nearly diagnosable obsession with business development. She has started practices in three different states and wants you to know that building a private practice is shockingly doable when you have a plan and support. After retiring her individual consultation services, she opened the Abundance Party, where you can get practice-building help for the cost of a copay. You can download a free private practice checklist to make sure you have your ducks in a row, get weekly private practice tips, listen to the podcast, hop into the free Facebook Group. Allison is all about helping you gain the confidence and tools you need to succeed.


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