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July 2024
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How to Release Your Fear and Feel at Home on the Stage

Trauma survivor knows how to overcome public speaking distress.

By Mary Nesfield

Lisa Wentz head shot

Hit play to hear Toastmaster Greg Gazin interview public speaking coach Lisa Wentz, as she offers valuable advice, tips and techniques. (Courtesy of the ToastCaster Communication, Leadership & Learning Lab)

Lisa Wentz was drawn to the stage at age 7 when she watched her brother perform in The Who’s hit rock opera Tommy. “It felt like home,” she says. “The character Tommy was traumatized by his family. And I was born into a traumatic environment.”

Wentz says she endured neglect and abuse as a child, and that her mother suffered from mental illness. The dire situation forced her to leave home at 13 and live on her own, she explains, adding that she had no choice but to develop strong communication skills. They sprang from her survival instinct.

“Being homeless at 13 meant that I had to learn to assert myself to get basic necessities: a home, job, and schooling,” says Wentz, the youngest of 10 children. “I forced myself to talk to people in a way that made them take me seriously. That meant I made good eye contact, listened, and asked questions ... those are the easiest ways to capture someone’s attention.”

Her harsh childhood helped Wentz develop a deep compassion for other people’s pain—a quality she says has benefitted her both as a performer and a speech coach. In her 20s, she worked as an actress and earned a master’s degree in voice and speech pedagogy at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Wanting to help people in a meaningful way, she founded the San Francisco Voice Center in 2009, where she uses myriad voice and speech techniques to help executives, entertainers, and nonprofit speakers, among others, express themselves more clearly, and with more confidence.

The author of Grace Under Pressure: A Masterclass in Public Speaking, she shares tips that can be especially meaningful to those plagued by punishing self-talk that interferes with their efforts to master public speaking.

How was your career affected by your childhood?

My mother suffered from Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD), which is a severe mental illness. She was unable to feel emotions such as empathy, guilt, shame, or love. Quite literally she was a deficient human being without the skills or desire to be a parent. She did not believe her role as a mother included providing consistent food, clothing, or protection in any way.

It affected me in positive and negative ways. The positive was that I ended up with a great deal of empathy and a desire to learn and express various aspects of the human condition through the lens of a playwright. The negative effect was a deep shyness that held me back from making the important connections needed to build a career.

What helps the speaker who has experienced some kind of trauma?

I put them through an exercise similar to exposure therapy. For example, I had a client who saw people in two ways—some as intelligent, and others who are not but who work hard to achieve goals. He saw himself as the latter. I knew he was wrong, because he could not have been accepted into the university he attended without having intelligence. He needed to realize how illogical his thinking was.

Woman peering from behind stage curtain

His poor self-image stemmed from his experience with a teacher at age 19. He stood up to answer her question, and she replied, “Sit down. You are stupid, and you always will be.” He carried that teacher’s words through to adulthood. Although he landed a very good job at a tech company, he had problems giving presentations. Each time he spoke to an audience, the experience triggered his muscle memory, and he lost confidence. He was traumatized by his former teacher’s abusive words.

To help him release the power his trauma had over him, I asked him to deliver a speech. I encouraged him to interrupt his presentation and give voice to any self-doubt right at the moment when it came to mind, and say aloud, sit down; you are stupid, and you always will be, immediately followed by having him tell that critic to leave—out loud. The exercise is empowering for anyone who is stifled by a traumatic event.

What can help people who are scared they will forget their speech while onstage?

I find what helps is to create a “roadmap” for a speech. I have clients name each part of their speech—one or two easy keywords to remember about the introduction, their two or three talking points, and the conclusion. For example, for a business talk they could give names like “welcome” for the intro. Their talking points can have names like “current” for the status of a company, “past” for a company’s previous activities, and “future” for a new business plan. Their conclusion may be a word or two for a call to action, or any point they choose to make. When those words are easy to remember, they will help a speaker always know where they are going, whatever their objective.

“Distractions, like your harsh inner critic, take away your ability to connect with your audience.”

— Lisa Wentz

What causes fear to emerge time after time in some people?

When you listen to negative criticism over and over again—whether it’s from a critical parent, teacher, coach, or from deep down inside of you—you start to believe it. You can learn all kinds of different techniques for delivering good speeches, but your public speaking will fall to pieces if you don’t learn to deal with the negativity you carry inside. Whatever the source of that negativity, do not allow it to have power over you. Distractions like your harsh inner critic take away your ability to connect with your audience.

Why do people seek help at a voice center?

They go to get training in several aspects of voice and speech, including public speaking, accent reduction or accent acquisition, or interpersonal skills, such as job interview prep or team meeting communication.

What can speakers do physically to care for their voices?

Learn to protect that voice through relaxation! Sir Paul McCartney and the late Aretha Franklin are great examples. They cultivated their voices to last a lifetime. I use the Alexander Technique to identify a client’s bad habits and replace those habits with something to relax their tension, thereby reducing the chance of overusing their voice.

What do you advise speakers to do immediately before going onstage?

About 15 minutes before speaking, they can practice the “paused breath” technique. Start by breathing in through the nose to deliver air to the lower ribcage and belly. Pause, and then exhale for about five seconds while making the “s” sound. Repeat that until you are ready to go onstage. It will slow your mind and body and counteract an adrenalin rush. It supports your voice and gives it more power.

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