I was fortunate enough to see her live last year, at a lecture series at USC. The host was thoughtful and had a series of interesting questions, but what really jumped out was how wise she actually is.
She knows what she’s talking about, but she’s not pushy about it. She’s funny, but she doesn’t try to be. She’s self-deprecating, but in an endearing and believable way–not an attention-seeking way.
I learned a lot that day not only about her subject matter, but also about her. Her reflections on “accidentally” giving one of the most popular TED Talks of all time. Her insightful thoughts on depression. Her joy in celebrating her hometown Houston’s victory in baseball, after the trauma of Hurricane Harvey.
You’d think that with all the public speaking Brown does, she wouldn’t get nervous anymore–but that’s not the case. In her new book, Dare to Lead, she says:
“People often ask me if I still get nervous when I speak in public. The answer is yes. I’m always nervous. Experience keeps me from being scared, but I’m still nervous.”
Then she explains why. First, people are giving her their time, which is a precious resource, and, second, “speaking is vulnerable.”
It is. It’s a vulnerable act to stand up and be heard, no matter how confident you are about your material. That’s you up there at the front of the room, or onstage, or anywhere else you’re letting your voice be heard.
Brown has a few tricks she uses to stay centered in the face of that vulnerability. They’ll work for you, too.
1. Request that the stage lights stay at 50 percent.
“Even though it makes event production teams crazy,” says Brown, “I always ask for the stage lights to be at 50 percent. When they’re at 100 percent, you can’t see the audience at all, and I don’t like talking into the void.”
This is an easy adjustment to make, especially if you’re talking to a large crowd. When you can see the real, live human beings out there, it can help you relax (especially given the next two suggestions).
2. Picture audience members as third graders.
Brown has had multiple event organizers try to “help” by telling her about the stature of the audience. They might say the top brass is there, or that there are elite members of some hyper-specialized group, or (her personal favorite) “‘These actually are rocket scientists who will probably hate what you’re saying, so stick to the data.'”
When this happens, she says, “rather than picturing naked people sitting in auditorium chairs, which just doesn’t work for me, I picture people without the armor of their titles, positions, power, or influence. When I spot the woman in the audience who has her lips pursed and her arms tightly folded across her chest, I picture what she looked like in third grade.”
Everybody started out as an insecure kid. Use that.
3. Repeat the following mantra before going onstage.
In 2008, Brown gave her first talk to an audience of corporate leaders. When she started experiencing that “lonely feeling of not belonging and being out of place,” she decided to pull back the curtain to the audience and take a peek.
And promptly freaked out.
“It was like a Brooks Brothers convention,” she said, “rows of mostly men in white shirts and very dark suits.” She blurted out to another speaker in the green room, “‘Oh, my god. These are all businesspeople–executives. Or FBI agents.'”
The speaker, whose name was Pete, laughed. “‘Yeah, it’s a conference for C-levels. Didn’t they tell you that?'”
And then Brown had a very human moment. At first, she wasn’t going to tell Pete the truth, but then decided to go for it:
“They did tell me it was a C-level audience. But I thought that meant down-to-earth. Like these are real sea-level people. Salt of the earth. S-E-A level.”
Pete laughed and said it was brilliant and she should use that in her talk. Brown countered with the fact that she was speaking on shame and the danger of not believing we’re enough. She followed that up with, “Ironically.”
But Pete’s response has stayed with her through the years, and it’s what she now uses to help calm down before every public speaking event at which she presents.
He said: “Look out into that audience again. These are people. Just people. And no one talks to them about shame, and every single one of them is in it up to their eyeballs. Just like the rest of us. Look at them. They are people.”
Then two miraculous things happened back-to-back. First, out there in that intimidating audience, Brown recognized someone: a man who had gone to the same AA meeting as she, over 10 years prior.
Then a woman outside the green room came to wish her luck. She was one of Brown’s neighbors–and a managing partner at a law firm. Yes, this woman was a high-powered lawyer, but Brown also happened to know she was going through a difficult divorce, and had just moved her mother into a hospice facility.
“People. People. People.” has become Brown’s mantra when speaking. No matter how “together” or intimidating other people look, they’re still people. They still want to feel like they belong; they still need to feel like they matter; they still hurt. Keeping that top of mind is what Brown uses to calm down–and you can too.
As for how that particular talk went: “The experience that day was electric. The audience and I were totally in sync and deeply connected. We belly-laughed. We cried. The audience leaned in so hard to what I was sharing about shame, unattainable expectations, and perfectionism that I thought they would fall out of their seats. We experienced the surge.”
Here’s to people and the surge.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.