Stage presence

Are you nervous? Then be nervous!

The local newspaper came to our Toastmasters club’s open house once and gave us a nice write-up. The opening line read, “Studies show that many people fear public speaking more than death.” That is the biggest exaggeration in the history of the English language!  I’ve never seen such a study, but stage fright is very real. If you search online for speaking tips, the top results deal with anxiety. Why is that? Should nervousness define your experience as a speaker?

Why so negative?

I have never seen a cover of Runner’s World that said, “How to deal with fatigue” or Flex magazine asking, “What do you do when the weight is heavy?” In what other venture do we advertise the downside first? Commercials on television for medications with one benefit and 12 side effects manage to accentuate the positive and hide the negative. What about public speaking? In a craft where optimism is your sharpest tool, people so often begin by describing the worst of it.

This one sentence will cure your speaking bug

Being nervous is the best part of public speaking. Savor it! Most people live without ever having a reason to be nervous about anything. Why would you deprive yourself of that thrill? The presence of an audience, your powerful message, and the high stakes for getting it right should motivate you, not deter you. Your anxiety builds energy in the crowd, generates their sympathy, and increases your appreciation for your audience as they lend their support.

If you are confident in your message, then you should be confident in your ability to share the message. No matter what your emotions are in the moments before you begin speaking, your confidence in your message will keep you on point.

Embrace your anxiety

There’s something special about beginning a speech when you’re too nervous to remember your lines. If you rehearse to the point that you commit every word to memory, your nerves will put your mouth on autopilot. You speak straight from the subconscious mind, and you’ll feel like you’re watching yourself speak. It’s pretty cool.

A nervous speaker generates sympathy from the audience. When they feel like they’re propping you up, they connect to you better than they would if you appear too sure of yourself. When you rely on the audience to build your confidence, you appreciate them more and your sincerity shows. An arrogant speaker will talk down to an audience. They recognize it much more quickly than they see your stage jitters.

We're still standing

The best example that I have seen of this audience support is the 2018 World Championship of Public Speaking. The winner that year was Ramona Smith, a middle school teacher from Cleveland, Ohio. Although Ramona radiates confidence on stage, she presented a story of several failures in her life and likened the experience to being a professional fighter being knocked to the canvas. Her experience in the classroom no doubt fueled her ability to stand tall on stage and yet get down to eye level with her audience. 

In most stories about overcoming obstacles, the speaker will usually lean on a guru to give the advice that saves the day. Ramona used the audience as her inspiration, feeding off of their anxiety to physically lift her off of the floor. It reminded me of the way Hulk Hogan would make his big comeback against a string of 1980’s title challengers. When she got back to her feet, the audience began singing to her in unison, even though she never expected it. She had to present herself as vulnerable in order for that audience to buy into that struggle. An overconfident speaker would have never gotten that kind of reaction.

I'm not nervous, but my character is

If your nervousness overtakes your ability to speak, then include it in your performance. The second place speaker in 2018 was Sherrie Su, who used her anxiety as part of her speech. She begins with her back turned to the audience and talks about life being like the stage, saying, “but sometimes it’s scary.” The quiver in her voice sold the idea. No amount of acting can replace the genuine trepidation of public speaking. She turns around, faces the audience and says, “I’m a little scared right now.” Sherrie had only spoken English for eight years at the time, which added to the tension. She talked about overcoming anxiety in her life by turning around facing fear. The topic can sound cliche, unless the speaker reinvents it. Sherrie added sophistication by eliciting empathy from the audience to lift her up.

If you are so nervous that the audience can see it, then use that tension in your speech. Begin with a story about someone who is nervous, or when you are nervous. As your confidence grows, the character’s good fortune improves.


Nervousness is pardonable, not excusable

Just note, it’s one thing to be nervous, tell people that you’re nervous, and then overcome it as you speak. It’s another issue to completely cop out and say that you’re too nervous to speak. When I was in high school, the guest speaker at a wrestling awards banquet opened his remarks with, “Guys, um, I’m not a very good public speaker.” He’s a big shot in the sport to this day but I’ve never been a fan, thanks to the 20 minutes he stole from my life.

Tie a yellow sweater 'round that pencil neck

Much like the fitness industry, the speaking profession is loaded with bad advice. I am looking right now at a list of public speaking tips online, and tip number one is … brace yourself … “breathe.” Below that stellar list is advice from a Harvard speech professor. Are you ready? “Nervousness is normal.” Well golly gee willikers, how did I miss that? This is what a $20 billion worth of research grants has come up with? This explains why the University of Alaska Anchorage, my almost alma mater, kicks their asses in the national debate competition every year.

Toastmasters does not put speaking tips in a list, as they know that public speaking is not so simple. Nervousness, however, is very simple. We like it. It’s the best thing about public speaking. Embrace anxiety, and use it to your advantage on stage.

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Stage presence

Master the Q & A

You know my doctor, Dr. Vinny Boombatz?

When Johnny Carson hosted the Tonight Show, guest comedians had to separate their routines into two parts. They performed their stand-up material, and then saved a few jokes for the sit-down segment with Johnny. In some cases, the seemingly “impromptu” conversation got more laughs than the official performance. 

In public speaking, the same format applies. You end your prepared remarks, soak up the applause, and then the real presentation begins.

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Questions, anyone?

Your audience will hopefully have questions before, during, and after your presentation. As your presentation is more of a dialog than the Gettysburg Address, the audience’s questions are every bit as important as your prepared comments.

The Q & A gives you time to add tidbits from your original speech that didn’t fit the central message, casually namedrop people, and pile on your credentials in a less boastful manner.

It might not look staged, but ...

Where to include a Q&A session is every bit as strategic as planning your own talk. When all goes well, a Q&A session enhances the talk by allowing the audience members to contribute. It boosts interaction between you and your audience, and gives you a chance to cover material that you might have left out. You can tailor the information you share to the specific concerns of each group. However, it can also turn around to bite you.

During a Q & A session, you relinquish control of the room to your audience. What can possibly go wrong?

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The usual suspects

The audience members can contribute or derail your presentation, depending on how you interact with them. As a lifelong disruptive student myself, I can assure you that noisemakers want to be a positive part of the presentation. Here’s a list of the usual suspects and possible solutions to keep the event on point:

The rambler

If the venue is big enough to warrant a microphone, your questioner will likely be nervous when it’s their turn to speak. The question might not make any sense at all, and will also be long-winded. In this case, rephrase their question and confirm before answering. Once you articulate their thoughts better than they can, you win them over. As an example:

“I was wondering, like, a friend of mine wants to lose 30 pounds, and I told her, you know, you’re not really doing the right things, cause she keeps her diet books next to her cookbooks, and …”

You can respond with, “It sounds like you want to know what kind of advice to give your friend.” You will be amazed at how the tension leaves the room once you frame their question. They will look at you like that guy on TV who communicates with dead people.

Captain obvious

Someone might ask a question that you have already answered. One option is to count down from three and have the audience yell, “DUH!” I recommend asking the audience. Let someone in the crowd answer the question. Once you get an answer, offer praise to the person who answered the question. If the questioner looks embarrassed for asking the question, respond with, “I’m glad you asked that question, since it’s a point worth repeating.”

The confronter 

There are a lot of egos in this industry, and someone will take great pride in disagreeing with you. In a sales situation, an objection is a buying signal. In a speaking venue, if an audience member postures up in disagreement, they are giving you an opportunity to win them over. Let’s say your talk is how you prefer functional training over bodybuilding. Somebody in your audience will challenge you and say that functional training is for wimps. The worst thing you can say is, “Well, that’s just your opinion” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It doesn’t work in marriage, and it doesn’t work with your audience

Instead, you can say, “There’s no doubt that muscle building works for you. If your clients gravitate to it, and they don’t have the same mobility issues that my clients do, then more power to you.” Turn the objective into an opportunity. That questioner will leave the venue dying for a chance to take your words and make them his own.

Q & A formats

You also have to consider where to put the Q&A in your talk. In a classroom, you can answer questions as you present the same way a teacher does. With a larger audience, you have to be more strategic. The room is too big to answer to a show of hands, and the lineup behind the microphone that you see in university settings can be the kiss of death.

The collection

If you know that there will be a lot of questions, you can take all of the questions at once and take notes as they ask. Then you can answer them in bulk. You can also collect written questions throughout the presentation and answer at an appropriate time.

The break

In a full-day session, you can make yourself available for questions during breaks and then report the answers back to the group. 


If you are using a projector with internet access, you can let your audience submit questions via Menti. You need to set up a free Mentimeter account beforehand. Create a presentation and set for “Open-ended questions.” The audience can submit questions via their smartphones and they will appear on the screen. You can choose the best questions to answer. 

No matter what Q & A format you use, finish with your own closing remarks. Never finish with, “Okay, that’s the last of the questions, thank you very much.” With practice, you can identify the question that segues into your closing. Remember, you always want to have the last word.

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Woman at gym
Stage presence

Mental midget in a bikini

How much of your self-promotion is really self-glorification?

Do you need to promote your own greatness in order to impress a potential client? When you market your business or services, people want to know your credentials. Feel free to tout your education, experience, and accomplishments in your marketing materials. However, too much self-promotion can lead to self- destruction.

Here’s a story of a trainer who thought that she held the key to success by elevating herself above her clients.

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The event

The leader of a local online meetup group called our training studio, asking us to host their Biggest Loser style weight-loss challenge. For three months they would do outdoor activities together, go grocery shopping, and use our gym to weigh in every Saturday morning. We hosted the kickoff event, only to find out that the group had hired another trainer to lead the challenge. We were just patsies to set up the facility. We could have raised a fuss and canceled the event, or we could serve up a cold dish when the time was right.


The starlet trainer opened the session by reading off of her cue cards, introducing herself and that she was, "um, very excited … to be here … " in a series of crescendos that said she was anything but excited.

She then treated the group to a promotional flyer of herself in a bikini, and handed them off to contestants who weighed as much as 300 pounds.

We learned about her work history and how those six-pack abs show off under certain light, but nothing about what she could do for the clients.

The group leader took over to outline the schedule, and then it was our turn. I knew from years of giving and attending seminars that people remember most what they hear last.

Payback time

"Allow us to welcome you to [name of studio], and to wish you luck over the next three months," I said. "Personally, I've never seen the show the Biggest Loser, but we see that show here every day." I proceeded to tell a quick anecdote about a client who recently allowed herself to be photographed for the first time in five years after training with us for a short time.

We closed the show by offering each of the dozen or so contestants a free training session to complement their itinerary so graciously designed by the group leader. Everybody in that room signed up with us that night.

We never saw the bikini trainer ever again

Was there any mention of the number of bodybuilding titles I had won? Of course not! I’m not a bodybuilder. But besides that, an even more obvious truth was that my credentials didn’t matter.

Our visiting trainer, to her credit, has since been very successful as a nutrition coach. I’ve seen her on a few daytime TV shows with her unique yet easy to make healthy recipes (I would give her a plug here, but, ah, never mind). What she forgot that night, or maybe didn’t know until we taught her a lesson as hard as her muscles looked in her airbrushed bikini pics, was that you are only as good as what you can do for others.

And now, the fun part. Let's talk about me!

Have you ever heard a speaker who was introduced with a long line of accolades that you didn’t even know existed? Then they begin the presentation with a PowerPoint slide recapping the same information. That intro tells the audience one thing -- the speaker has nothing else to offer.

Leave a few in the tank 

It’s tempting to let loose and showcase every certification, award, and little league trophy you’ve ever earned in order to win their confidence. If I can offer one bodybuilding tip, leave a few in the tank. Seasoned muscle builders will resist the urge to put all of their effort into one set, and put the weights down so that they can do another full set a minute later. 

The same rule about pacing yourself in the gym applies with your clients or your audience. When you share your credentials, you have a choice. You can blast everything at them for the sake of self-fulfillment, or you can slow play your self-disclosure so that your most important attributes seem ordinary to you. Either way, your credentials do not last in people’s minds.  The only thing that matters is the results you can offer your clients.

Q & A

Any achievements that you omit from your introduction can secretly make their way to the question and answer session. This is when the audience engages you in dialog, and your answers are more succinct. If an audience member asks a question about distance running, that is the best time to casually mention that you have run 16 marathons in your lifetime (hmm … where did I come up with that number?). You restate your credentials into the context of their problems.

And now, the plug

In the FIT Presenter speaking kit, you will see a page where you list your credentials. There are some things that your client needs to know immediately. Your current certification and tenure at the gym are your base qualifications to show that you belong there. If the clients are looking for specialized trainers for high level performance (and let’s be honest, they’re usually not), then you can list if you have an advanced certification with a certain type of equipment or training method. Any time you list anything beyond the basics, you are now selling yourself and pushing yourself on the client.


Nobody wants a pushy seller, either on the gym floor or on stage. So follow the advice of a distance runner who has run 16 marathons and pace yourself when delivering your message and when sharing your credentials.

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