The Shy Person’s Guide to Public Speaking

Staring at the clock, I did the math. If the classmate standing in front of the room would just keep speaking beyond his 10-minute time limit, I wouldn’t have to give my presentation in front of my 11th-grade history class. He was already at the eight-minute mark. Come on, man, I pleaded in my head, my palms sweating. Don’t stop talking.

I watched the seconds hand make another round. Nine minutes. That’s it, buddy. Keep going.

10 minutes. Yes!

11 minutes, 12 minutes. Thank God. I’m free.

I took a deep breath of relief when I suddenly heard the voice of my teacher, Mr. C: “Thompson. You’re up. Let’s squeeze this in.” I froze.

I was an extremely shy kid with a severe speech impediment, and that day, my stutter fired out like a machine gun. The entire class was forced to stay after school because it took me 18 minutes to finish my 10-minute talk. I was mortified.

If you had told me at that moment that I would one day become a communication coach who would be invited to teach presentation skills to politicians and business leaders, I would have probably laughed in your face. But here I am. I often can’t believe it, either.

People sometimes ask how I overcame my fear of public speaking, wanting to know if there’s a workshop they can sign up for or trick they can use when they’re up on stage, feeling like they might vomit. What I tell them is this: I gained my confidence by carving out ways for myself to speak in public in every area of my life. I took small but manageable steps, in my own way and at my own pace.

I created this guide to help you, fellow shy person, become more comfortable speaking in public. It begins with the lowest-stakes strategies, and builds from there.

Let’s dive in — whenever you’re ready.

Write out your fears and goals

Take some time to think about the root of your fears. Does public speaking scare you because you had a bad experience? Is it because you’ve always been shy? Is it because you’re worried about what people will think of you?

Write down your fears and get specific about how they’ve held you back, both professionally and personally. Then flip the script and write down the many ways overcoming this fear can propel you forward and bring you satisfaction. I knew that I wanted to become a better speaker because I had ideas that I desperately wanted to share with the world. Describe what your life would look like if you were a confident public speaker. What might change?

Record yourself talking about your public speaking goals

Now, talk about your public speaking fears and goals — while recording yourself. This is a great exercise for a few reasons: 1) getting comfortable in front of the camera has a way of making the stage feel less intimidating later on; 2) it pushes you to think about how to best structure your story; and 3) there’s power in putting a voice to your fears and asserting exactly what you plan to do about it.

Note: If you’re struggling to get started, simply record yourself saying, “Pineapples are delicious.” Then take a deep breath, turn your camera back on and give your talk another go. I’m not kidding. Your goal isn’t to record an award-winning speech — for now, at least. Your goal is simply to become 1% more comfortable doing something that makes you uncomfortable.

Record your talk 10 more times and critique each take

Why do some people seem like naturals at public speaking? Because they once gave themselves permission to suck at public speaking. You must do the same.

My friend, professional speaker Conor Neill, said that recording yourself for just three minutes every day is the single best investment you can make to improve your speaking skills. You might cringe when you play back your recordings, but keep watching them. Note where you need to improve, but also jot down what you’re doing right. Maybe after a rocky start, you settle into a groove and notice a shift in your body language. Maybe you avoid saying filler words like “um” or “like” for a decent stretch. Maybe after the fourth take, your introduction starts to sound more engaging. Collect every win you can.

Once you start to feel more comfortable talking about your public speaking goals on camera, recording yourself giving other mini speeches — you might tell your favorite childhood story or pitch your dream startup idea.

You’re beginning to get acquainted with the sound of your voice.

Now let’s move onto speaking for an actual audience.

Tell a story to a trusted friend

Prior to giving a TED Talk that would reach nearly 25 million views, Quiet author Susan Cain worked with communication coach Jim Fyfe. One of the first questions he asked her was where she felt the most comfortable. Cain told him that she enjoys speaking to friends one-on-one in intimate settings. Fyfe then sat her down on her sofa and asked her to give her talk to him there.

If you feel most comfortable at home, invite a friend over. Get cozy. Put on your favorite Christmas onesie if that’s what you feel most relaxed in. Have a drink if it helps your words flow. Then simply share a story that you might one day want to tell a larger group of people. You’re allowed to be comfortable while doing something uncomfortable.

Go to a talk and ask one question

A great way to gain more confidence is by briefly stepping into the spotlight — and then stepping out of it. Go to a talk — it could be a book signing, a panel discussion on Mexican food, anything — and raise your hand during the Q&A portion. When you’re called upon, go for it: Introduce yourself, ask your question, sit back down, breathe, and celebrate the fact that you made it out alive.

Post videos of yourself speaking on social media

You probably know that on Instagram Stories and YouTube, people record themselves talking about anything and everything — they give tours of their fish tanks, describe what they had for lunch, or do live Q&As. For the public-speaking-averse, this could be a great exercise. You might even announce to your followers that you’re afraid of speaking in public, and ask if anyone has any tips. You’ll likely be showered with support and may even receive some advice that resonates with you.

Recruit a public speaking partner

The odds are high that you have friends who’d like to improve their public speaking skills as well. Ask one or two of them if they’d like to team up and face this fear together. You could critique one another’s videos or interview each other about various topics. Having an accountability partner can make the whole mission more motivating and fun.

Host a storytelling party

Invite a small group of friends to your home, and over dinner and drinks, ask everyone to share a story. You might throw out specific questions such as “Who was your oddest celebrity crush?” or “What’s something you’ve always dreamed of doing but haven’t gotten to yet?” You might get a few eye-rolls at first, but once the crowd learns that their buddy had the hots for Lois from Family Guy, they’ll appreciate the ice breaker.

Find low-stakes audiences

Before you give an important presentation in front of 50 colleagues, seek out less intimidating audiences. This might mean you volunteer to talk about your career at your kid’s school or sing karaoke at a loud bar.

The size of your audience doesn’t matter: When I moved to Spain 10 years ago, to make ends meet, I gave a monthly workshop to help other expats find English teaching jobs. There were two people in attendance.

Practice a real talk on a stage with some friends or co-workers

Once you’ve conquered these steps, it’s time to give a real talk in front of a real audience. Gather some friends or co-workers and ask them to share specific feedback (if you don’t, you’ll get 20 people saying, “Nice job!”). Ask them whether you sped up too much in certain areas or if you were doing something weird with your hands. Then do it again and again with different groups of people.

I may not be the smoothest speaker in the world, but the fact that I’m no longer afraid of speaking in public has brought more opportunities into my life than anything else. Try slowly chipping away at your fears every day until you no longer feel like you’re “public speaking.” You’re simply sharing your story.

My Life Began the Day I Lost $250,000

The phone rang. This was it! I thought. At last, all the years of struggle I’d endured were about to be worth it.

Growing up with a severe speech impediment and social anxiety, I had a very limited view of what I was capable of achieving. But as I grew into adulthood, I began to push myself far beyond my comfort zone. I hired a communication coach and threw myself into a sales job, where I’d be forced to talk to people every day. And I became good at what I did, working my way up to managing a sales team.

I got a taste of success, and then I wanted more. I began dabbling in real estate investments in Central America.

I was 29 years old, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I could do anything. I was about to close the deal on the sale of my investment property, which would net me a $250,000 payout.

But the moment I heard the voice on the other end of the line, I knew something was wrong and my stomach began to drop.

After a long pause, the man — my partner in the deal, and someone who I’d once considered family — gave me the news. “Michael, the money isn’t coming,” he said. “The deal is dead.”

I did my best not to completely lose it.

Things would be okay, I told myself. No matter what happened, the house was still mine. I would simply list the property again, attract a new buyer, and get back my investment. Not the original plan, but not the end of the world.

But then I received another surprise.

Unbeknownst to my friend at the time, his father had changed the deed of the property to his own name. Then he sold it out from under me — for $30,000 in cash, I would later learn, and five luxury cars valued well over $200,000 to a man who I can only imagine walks a fine line between what’s right and wrong.

One crossed-out name.

One new signature.

One measly phone call.

And everything that I’d been working toward was gone. It wasn’t long before my sanity and confidence went with it.

To say that I felt completely paralyzed would be an understatement. I sat in my car, thinking about everything. I wondered what the hell I was going to do next. Then I did the only thing I could think of to numb the pain of losing a quarter of a million dollars — I drove to the closest bar.

Over the next 21 months, as if I was writing my own country song, I smoked my breakfast and drank my dinner. My parents were scared. The few friends I didn’t manage to piss off or push away were worried. The only reason I hadn’t been admitted to rehab or the hospital was that I was too ashamed to tell a doctor the truth: I needed serious help.

Finally, as a Hail Mary attempt to straighten out my twisted head, I decided to take what money I had left and I bought a one-way ticket to Barcelona. I once read that some people travel because they’re running toward something, while others travel because they’re running away from something. At the time, I fell into the latter category. I was lost. My confidence was shot. But I knew I had to do something.

After I loaded up my backpack with some clothes, a few books, and other scattered belongings, I gave my parents one last hug at JFK airport and I boarded the plane.

And then something happened.

The moment I stepped on Catalan soil, I felt a shift. My shoulders dropped. Gravity lessened. The city streets seemed ripe with opportunity. The air smelled clean and crisp. For the first time in close to two years, I felt like I could breathe again.

Within weeks, instead of running from life, I began to chase it.

I started eating well and walking everywhere. I quickly lost the 60 pounds I’d gained during my two-year blackout. I allowed myself to play again and I finally gave my curiosity the respect it deserves. I threw myself back into work I cared about — while seeking out people who were doing what they could to make the world a better place.

For once, instead of trying to reinvent myself to become the person I thought other people wanted me to be, I focused on taking the steps to actually get to know the real me. In the process, I learned to smile without having to fake it.

All of this came to a head eight months after I arrived. I was walking down the rainy streets of Barcelona with a woman I had just met. Suddenly, the sun came out, and in one fluid motion, this comfortable stranger stopped in a fleeting ray of light, tilted up her head, closed her eyes, and smiled. At that moment, I was finally present enough to see all the beauty that exists in the world.

My life today couldn’t be more different than the one I had prior to boarding that plane 10 years ago.

I may not be what society deems as mega-successful, but I’ve never felt like more of a success. I get to wake up every day and be me. And the best part, is I have the privilege of seeing that same woman every morning laying next to me.

We live in a slow country town. Our apartment is small. We share one car. I can’t remember the last time either of us bought new clothes. But we have each other and our two little boys.

That phone call may have cost me $250,000 — but the journey it took me on was worth every penny.

Thank you for reading.
— Michael

The Shy Person’s Guide to Winning Friends and Influencing People

Act more confident. Push past your comfort zone. Stand like an alpha.

I grew up a shy introvert with a severe speech impediment, bombarded by such suggestions. Honestly, I’ve tried them all. I’ve also come to the conclusion that it’s a lot easier, and more effective, to be kind than to try to always act confident.

Over the past 18 years, I’ve worked in various “extrovert” sectors, such as sales and communication, and I’ve managed to consistently excel. I didn’t try to compete with the extroverts. I let them win at their game. Instead, I decided to invent my own — and went all-in on being as thoughtful as possible.

You may find some of the following suggestions basic, but that’s the point. If I’ve learned anything on my journey from being a shy, stuttering kid to a communication and relationship coach, it’s that doing the basics well leads to a job well done.

In his book “If I Could Tell You Just One Thing,” entrepreneur Richard Reed asked Bill Clinton what most contributed to his success.

“I’ve come to believe that one of the most important things is to see people,” Clinton said. “The person who opens the door for you, the person who pours your coffee. Acknowledge them. Show them respect. The traditional greeting of the Zulu people of South Africa is ‘Sawubona’. It means ‘I see you.’ I try and do that.”

Yes, Bill Clinton is one of the most recognizable people in the world and has a reputation for being charming and charismatic. But there’s no reason you can’t follow his lead and commit to acknowledging each person you come into contact with today.

Heads down and phones out — most of us are oblivious to the world around us, including our fellow human beings. That’s why smiling, holding doors, and saying hello to strangers are such powerful gestures. Acknowledging people makes you stand out without having to show off — and, when done consistently, it will build your likability faster than you’d imagine.

Every Tom, Dick, and Sally loves to say, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”

Sure. But a lot has changed since that cliché came into common parlance. For one thing, the opportunity to continue our conversations is now literally a click away.

Countless times, I’ve met someone in passing who I didn’t click with right away, only to hear from them days or weeks later with a kind gesture of some sort. Sometimes they’ll reach out with a networking opportunity, other times maybe a book or artist recommendation based on our conversation.

These interactions have taught me a valuable lesson: It’s hard to dislike someone thoughtful enough to take time out of their day to make an effort.

Some people make easy initial connections with others. If you don’t, and need a little more time to show yourself, take it. If you meet someone you want to connect with, use that time to think about how you can help them or make their life brighter, even in a small way.

If you’re an introvert, you probably pride yourself on your observation and listening skills. Don’t stop prioritizing these skills. Many fail to really listen to and notice those around them, so an observant person who actually listens is rare and valued.

There’s an easy way to super-charge this quality: Take notes after important conversations, making sure to jot down any details that are clearly important to the other person.

This is immensely valuable. Because so few people take the time to do it, you can really set yourself apart. How would you feel if tomorrow you opened up your phone and a message was waiting from someone you just met wishing you well on your upcoming presentation? Or how about sending a personalized get-well-soon message for an elderly neighbor who’s in the hospital?

My Spanish was terrible when I first moved to Spain. A year or so after I settled in here, I ran into one of my first Spanish teachers and he exclaimed delightedly about how much I had improved.

I liked the guy to start. But after this? I loved him.

As much as we hear that people don’t change, they do. Not everyone takes the time to notice and acknowledge the ways in which people grow and improve. This doesn’t have to be complicated. If your friend gets a haircut, compliment him. If someone you know is close to reaching a milestone, set yourself a reminder to be the first to congratulate them when they hit it.

Again, none of this advice is particularly complicated: Smile, hold doors, and thank people for what they do and who they are. Master following-up thoughtfully and take an interest in what’s happening in the lives of the people around you, noticing how they grow and change. Listen, watch, notice — and praise. These are all small actions, but they can help you feel good about yourself and have stronger relationships with others.

Unless I wake up tomorrow looking like Brad Pitt, most heads won’t turn when I walk into a room. I’ll never be the life of the party. But that’s OK. It’s not my style.

Instead, I play the long game. And I let the compounding beauty of kindness do the work for me.

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.
— Michael

4 Ways to Be More Likable by Saying Very Little

World domination isn’t something I spend a great deal of time thinking about as I have a hard enough time trying to keep up with my two kids.

But recently, Greg Isenberg, growth advisor for TikTok US, broke Twitter with a thread about the lessons he’d learned about life, entrepreneurship, and business by interviewing five billionaires in as many days. As a whole, Greg’s takeaways were fun to read, but there was one lesson in particular that stood out for the simple fact it got a rise out of some people —

“Likable people win. People sense those good vibes. It does wonders for your startup, career, and life.”

It’s surprising how polarizing a topic like likability can be for people. A solid majority feel it really is a superpower. Others, however, think it isn’t. In fact, some people think working to be more likable is a massive waste of time as it implies you’re a person of many masks.

Personally, I’m with the filthy rich people Greg interviewed.

Everything good in my life has come from other people and I’m fairly certain these good things wouldn’t have come into my life if other people didn’t like me very much.

If you too believe likability is important, but at times struggle to make connections like I did when I was a stuttering, introverted kid, below are a few lightweight but highly effective ways to help you on your way.

The best part is, as promised, you don’t even need to say much.

In typical Bourdain fashion, when asked by author and entrepreneur Richard Reed for one piece of advice to share with the world for his book, If I Could Tell You Just One Thing,” Bourdain listed 8 things.

In addition to being kind to waitstaff and a few other points, Bourdain ended his list by giving a piece of advice that can seriously help boost your likability factor — “Don’t be a dick!”

If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that dicks come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. But from living all over the world, there are a few commonalities that link them together.

For starters, looking down on people is a typical dick move. Regardless of color, race, culture, or background, all people want to be acknowledged and treated with respect.

Speaking poorly of others is also a giant dick quality. But here’s an interesting bit of science that may get you to think before you speak. According to the phenomenon — spontaneous trait inference — how you describe other people is how other people see you. So if you speak poorly of others, people will think poorly of you.

Gossiping, lying, being a one-upper or an over-interruptor, and being negative all the time round out a lot of the traits that turn most people off from what I’ve gathered.

So if you want to boost your likability, take note of these behaviors and try to limit them. Of course, not doing them doesn’t automatically make you likable, but it sure helps.

“Hold your head up high!” “Let people feel your presence!”

I don’t know about you, but I think society has this one backward. When I’m meeting someone new, I’m more focused on leaving a kind impression than an alpha one unless maybe they’re a venture capitalist.

If this thought resonates with you, give Robin Dreeke’s recipe from his book It’s Not About Me,” a shot:

  • When you’re approaching someone, tilt your head down a pinch, turn it slightly to the side, and give a slight smile. If you aren’t following my lead here just think of a puppy eyeing up a burger as everyone loves puppies. Plus, high chins give off an air of high-society and not everyone I know loves people in high-society. In short, aim for warmth, not coldness so don’t worry about having superhero posture.
  • Stand slightly to the side instead of directly in front of them as you get closer to someone. If human beings value anything, it’s the power to make their own decisions. So don’t block people’s paths as the odds are high you don’t like it when someone blocks yours.
  • Lead off your conversation by letting them know you won’t take up much of their time. The phrase “I’m walking out the door to meet my wife, but I’m curious…..” works well. The same goes for “I’m running to a meeting, but I’m interested….” as letting people know you won’t be taking up a lot of time helps to put their guard down.

Try this 3-step process. Then listen and observe their response to make sure their body language, facial gestures, and tone reflect a willingness to talk to you. It may sound basic. But basic things done well are good.

On a recent call, I asked Fred Dust, the author of Making Conversations and all-around interesting guy, how he chooses who he spends his time with.

At first, he began listing off a few different answers. But halfway through, he stopped himself and said the following words —

“When I cut it down to one quality, for me, I choose to hang out with people who listen. This is for the simple fact that if they don’t listen to me, it’ll only be a matter of time before I won’t want to listen to them!”

I don’t know about you, but I thought that was pretty smart.

But this doesn’t mean you need to always follow the typical advice that you need to listen more than you speak as if everyone did that our conversations would be pretty uneventful.

It simply means to make sure the other person feels like an equal partner and the best way to do that is to shut up and listen when they’re speaking.

At our core, we’re selfish creatures. Being a good listener takes work. In addition to adopting a curious mindset and the typical advice of keeping your phone out of sight, below are a few unconventional tips that can help you improve this seriously attractive skill.

  • Don’t just repeat back what people say but distill it. I was talking to a friend last week and after telling him about moving to Spain and meeting my wife, he replied — “Ah, the key to being interesting is to go where you aren’t boring!” Not only did his summation lead to a laugh. But it opened the door to a great conversation about how sometimes the best way to stand out is to go where you’re different by default.
  • Gamify your conversations. Prior to meeting with someone, think about what you think their answers will be for a few questions you have in mind as it will help you stay present when the topics come up. What hobbies they’re into is an easy one. The same goes for side projects or why they do what they do for work.
  • Challenge yourself to learn three new things about someone and write them down after your conversation. This may sound basic, but as a kid with a stutter who often worried about what I was going to say instead of listening, this tip from my therapist really helped.

I personally love it when people say things during conversations like, “Back to your previous point — what you were saying about X was really interesting!”

Or, when we link back up again, “The last time we talked, you told me X. How’s it going?” as it shows me they really are interested.

“A person’s name is the sweetest sound in the world!”

I’ve never really understood this typical Pinterest Dale Carnegie quote that bloggers love so much as I’ve never felt a real difference between someone saying, “It was nice to meet you, Mike!” or “Bye, Nice to meet you!”

Plus, I don’t know about you, but to me, when someone says they’re bad with names, it implies they call people the wrong names which yeah, isn’t a very likable quality.

This, of course, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight hard to remember people’s names. But since Carnegie’s shared this advice, the world has changed. For starters, the internet has made looking people up kinda easy. You can even hand your phone to someone for them to put in their info if you connected with them or ask them if they’re on Linkedin and have them spell their first and last name.

From what I’ve gathered when speaking to people the last few weeks, remembering someone’s name isn’t a massive deal. But what is — and instantly boosts your likability — is remembering the names of the kids or loved ones of people you already know.

In fact, the first time I met my friend Eric Sangerma he immediately led by asking about my kids by name and since I’d only mentioned them in passing on a call it showed me he cared.

As someone who moves around a lot, Eric’s reminder has been gold. My kids are both in a new school this year here in Spain and every time I address one of his classmates by name in the morning, like clockwork, their parents smile and stop for a quick chat.

Yesterday I was talking to a woman I used to hang out with. As we were wrapping up the call, I asked her about her ability to connect with people and she summed up the benefits of likability best — “Life’s a lot more fun when people like you. Plus, you end up getting a lot more done.”

So in short, if you want to boost your likability factor, remember the names of loved ones, aim for comfort and not confidence, shut up and listen, and of course, remind yourself of Bourdain’s famous words and *“Don’t be a d**ck!”

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.
— Michael