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How To Overcome Your Fear Of Speaking - The Olivia James Story

succeed through speaking tom bailey Jun 13, 2022

Tom Bailey, founder of Succeed Through Speaking, interviews Olivia James.

In this episode we hear about our guests journey with confidence, public speaking and presentation skills and how it has helped them succeed in life and in business - in other words, how to succeed through speaking.

Olivia James is a Harley Street performance coach and therapist.

She treats public speaking anxiety, confidence issues, and trauma. Her clients include entrepreneurs, senior leaders, philanthropists and public figures. After treatment, clients have delivered successful keynotes, pitches, TEDx and TV appearances. One client she treated for stage fright went on to become a UN Ambassador.

She's regularly quoted in the media and her insights have appeared in Psychologies, Yahoo Finance and Wired.

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Tom Bailey  00:07

Hello and welcome to succeed through speaking the place for experts and entrepreneurs who want high value ideas to boost business results. Hello, I'm Tom Bailey. And in today's episode, I'll be getting to know Olivia James, who is a Harley street performance coach and therapist. She treats public speaking anxiety and competence issues, which are both great topics for our podcast audience in particular. So Olivia, hello, and a very warm welcome to today's episode.

Olivia James  00:45

Hello, Tom. Thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to this.

Tom Bailey  00:48

Me too. I can't wait to find out more about you and what you do, but just out of interest whereabouts are you based right now?

Olivia James  00:55

I'm based in London, and my practices in Harley Street in central London.

Tom Bailey  01:00

Awesome. Thank you so much. And I want to just share one last thing about you before we do get started. So Olivia is clients typically include entrepreneurs, senior leaders, philanthropist and public figures. And after treatment, her clients have delivered successful keynotes pitches, TEDx talks, and also TV appearances. So all of this sounds incredible. I can't wait to find out more. But my first question is, how did you get into this field? And has it got anything to do with your personal experience of public speaking?

Olivia James  01:32

Yes. So I basically, I've been a therapist since like the mid 90s. And I started working with people, mainly on the on a physical level, and then soon realized that psychology and physiology are very much related. I started to get referrals for public speaking, confidence and anxiety. And I realized I was really good at it. And then like the kind of the word grew, so I started to add more techniques to help me sort of attack the anxiety and treat it from like different angles, basically. So I can create like a perfect recipe treatment plan for each client. So in terms of my own speaking, never really had a problem public speaking. I mean, I speak at like conferences, you know, I speak at like online, as well as on real stages. Since the pandemic, I've stood on a couple of real stages. But I did have one incident of public speaking anxiety, which really, really made me realize how bad it can feel feel. It's utterly visceral, when you have it. Yeah, it's just you just wanted to stop. I did a I was invited to do a competition for the professional speaking Association. And so and it seemed like a really good idea at the time. So I signed up. And then about two weeks beforehand, I started to get the fear. And I was thinking, I can't do this. And it was like, it was so irrational, but it was so strong. And I called the organizer and tried to persuade him that I didn't quite qualify under the rules. And then I thought, This is ridiculous. Like, this is what I help people with soon. In fact, like, I talked about this, and I sort of treated myself it's like, Physician, heal Thyself, you know, so I've had an experience of what it feels like. And so it means that I'm not one of these like, you know, I you know, I'm not one of these like ivory tower type people that looks down and says, Oh, well, you just have to do this. I felt it is absolutely dreadful.

Tom Bailey  03:40

Yeah, I think that's, that's really important. And I think we spoke just before this, I probably could have been and still can be your ideal client because I had that fear of speaking I had social anxiety and it was horrible. You know, my whole body physiology, the bright red face the shakiness sweating, all of that, and I just avoided it at all costs are probably about the first 30 years of my life. And so yeah, I completely understand that that feeling Definitely.

Olivia James  04:08

Definitely. And of course, like avoidance is most people's coping strategy. Yeah. And but it can kind of it starts to build up because you kind of know that you the rational part of you thinks, Okay, I need to do this for my career or for my mission for my charity, whatever it might be, that your fear part of you tends to take over. And the cost of more stress we get we can get into this later like, the more stressed you get, the less likely your brain is to work to work and your your, you know, your your prefrontal cortex, okay, won't get enough blood and you make mistakes and you stumble and fumble and any, you know, it just is actually exacerbate upgrade subproblem. Basically,

Tom Bailey  04:51

I'd be interested to get your perspective actually because I've never really worked through this with a coach. It took me about 10 to 15 years I'd say to get over my fear, I did it the slow way. But looking back, I think my big fear of public speaking was back in my school days. And it was avoidance of embarrassment. I didn't want to embarrass myself in front of other people and had some experiences at school where I did embarrass myself and the whole class laughed at me. And, you know, I wanted to curl up and die, you know, under a rock, I guess. So I remember when I was probably about 11. And, and I said something stupid in class, and the school teacher called me out on it, I went bright red, she said to me, or we could cook an egg on your face, and it made me go even more red. And the whole class laughed at me. I think I've ran out the room. And to me, I feel like that was what then set in motion this avoidance of embarrassing myself.

Olivia James  05:44

Yes, that sounds very familiar. Thanks for sharing that like that. 10. We call that in psychology. We call that a sensitizing event. So that's a key moment where you your nervous system, learn that this whole standing up in front of people and saying stuff isn't safe. Like, and of course, the teacher then, you know, making fun of your reaction. On top of that sort of exacerbates the problem and everyone laughing at you exacerbates the problem. So those are exactly the types of incidents where an anxiety can start. So in treating it, there are there are ways to treat that anxiety without you having to necessarily tell me all the gory details of that moment of shame. And I'm like, you know, where you just want to run away in is absolutely your Advil. So there are ways of treating that anxiety without the person having to tell me the whole right. The you know, the whole shameful incident. Yeah. But yeah, so sometimes, where you can find one specific incident where the client says to me, okay, this is the moment where it started. Other times, it's a more of a multi layered sort of case history. So and that's probably the same with your with you as well. Now, before we started recording, you said to me, that you, you, you sort of like you sort of possibly did it the wrong way. And you want to tell tell us about that. Thank you. Sounds interesting.

Tom Bailey  07:17

Yeah, thank you so much. So I guess, may have been the case for a lot of your clients as well. But I guess the breaking point for me when I said to myself, I can no longer avoid this was, I was asked to speak at my nan's funeral. And for me, I said, I said no. And because I was too scared of making mistake, embarrassing himself, and of all these people, it's obviously an emotional event anyway. And, and for me, that was the point at which I said, Enough is enough, I can no longer have this holding me back, both at work, but also from a personal level as well. So I went off on a journey to try and figure out how to overcome this. And yeah, our first mistake was a boy, every single book on public speaking, presenting confidence. I read them all, but two years later, I still hadn't actually done any speaking. Yes, I guess, is that a common tactic that people use? Which is yes,

Olivia James  08:06

I think, in entrepreneurship, we call this action baking. Yeah. So it's like you're pretending you're doing stuff. But it's all this preparing? I'm not ready. I'm not I need to write read another book, I need to read another book. And of course, like in the professional speaking Association, we call this flying time, everybody meet your needs to be able to implement it. And of course, then what tends to happen is when people say you do like a podcast, or you do you know, you speak at an event, then no matter how much well you prepared it, never, there's always something you wish you could have done differently. And even for professional actors and speakers. There are some performances that that for whatever reason, they don't go as well. And then it's like, how you handle that emotionally and psychologically? Do you start to beat yourself up? Do you like I talk to my clients a lot about sort of re parenting themselves. It's a bit like teaching a child how to ride a bicycle, they're gonna fall off and there is a part of them that's going to go I don't want to do this anymore. I can't do it. I won't do it. I don't like it. I don't like it. I like as the parent you have to say, Come on. Let's try again. Come on, get back on. And as a speaker, you have to learn to do this as well. You know, and I think that's a big part. So that you're, you're just reading the books and not implementing it showed that that like, on some level, you weren't quite ready. Yeah. And, and it sounds like it's very familiar. It's a very familiar thing. So yeah, then you have to sort of like but there's a lot of BS talked about kind of mindset and like pushing yourself and all this kind of stuff. And what tends to happen is especially when somebody has a bit of trauma to do with public speaking, if you push yourself too much, you Do an event that you really where you're not ready, it can actually be really traumatizing. Yeah, overwhelm you even more. So the idea is that you do like baby steps, you know, you, you start with smaller events and you learn, either by yourself or with a coach to manage those ups and downs that inevitably will happen when you get out there in the real world and start speaking.

Tom Bailey  10:23

Yeah, I love that thought of baby steps. And, you know, I am not a therapist or, or client coaching that perspective, but I do help people to overcome their fear of speaking through a different mechanism. So the first thing I tend to do is to say, you know, get yourself booked onto a podcast as a guest, and it may be my podcast, or maybe somebody else. Yeah, there's comfort of your own home, you can still practice speaking about your topic, but without having to have that big audience, I guess. Yes, sir. Is that an example of baby steps? Would

Olivia James  10:51

you say? Yes, I think so. I think so. For a lot of people, it's like the podcast or the panel at a conference. It's something where you will it isn't just you. With no, nothing to hold on to, you know what I mean? Yeah. So yes, an interview or a panel is a really good way to start. Good night.

Tom Bailey  11:13

And we show this, this is where everyone was teaching your brain to say, You know what, that wasn't so bad. Actually, I didn't die. I didn't, yeah, he got hurt.

Olivia James  11:19

It's amazing how often a client will say to me, all right, yes, I did a podcast or the TV. But I really don't want to watch your back. I don't want to listen to it. I like and then we get together, we watch it together. And they go, Wow, actually, I think I did pretty well. Like sometimes when you're learning to get over this fear in your head. When you've done something, your inner critic gets turned up. And you go, Oh, that was a total car crash. You know, I don't even want to watch your back. Yeah. And of course, in order to get better, you do have to watch yourself back. And you have to sort of watch yourself with it with a constructive criticism instead of like, just destroying yourself, you know. So it's so good so often that they say to me, I don't want to watch your back. Or they'll send it to me, and I'll watch it. And I go, Oh, you did really? Well, you came across really? Well. Yeah, it's like, because sometimes the what how we feel inside to how we come across to other people. We always think we look worse, you know what I mean?

Tom Bailey  12:20

Yeah, and I think I experienced this and I guess others have as well. When we do hear ourselves back for the first time. It doesn't sound like us. It doesn't sound like what we think we sound like. Yes. And I guess that that can also be quite a challenge for people to get

Olivia James  12:34

mentally Yes, there are there are sort of physiological reasons for that. Because of all the bones in your head, like the way that your voice sounds in your head, the way that it sounds on a speaker is different. And then of course, the inner critic kicks in. And we might not like our voice or our accent, or whatever it might be, or the fact that we said, um, loads of times, you know,

Tom Bailey  12:57

yeah, and I think just just to build on that. So we talked about some of the mistakes I made, I guess, on that note, and I listened back to myself, and I thought I sound like I'm from Wolverhampton here. And that's not how a public speaker sounds. So then I spent the next 12 months work with a vocal coach to try and make me sound like I'm from London. And but ultimately, you know, I look back now and think that was a mistake, because, you know, I should be authentic, I should be comfortable in my own voice. So accent and not trying to be somebody else. What's your thoughts on?

Olivia James  13:26

Yes, my good friend of mine, also a speaker coach, she likes to quote Oscar Wilde, who said, Be Yourself everybody else has already taken but I think for a lot of people because we have we have some trauma about perhaps our name, or our ethnicity, or our accent or our class or stuff like that, because it this can all be part of like, I am not acceptable, the way I mean, there's a lot of like, positive BS talks about authenticity and vulnerability and all the rest of it, but most of that takes doesn't take into account people's trauma and people having been bullied and all this kindness. Yeah. So it's understandable that you tried to do that. Yes, I remember. My somebody who I'm friends with the Arctic Monkeys, you know, they sing in their local accent and they were kind of they were, they were really encouraged by this friend of mine, John Cooper Clarke, who's a poet from Manchester with a very strong accent. And they realize that actually it's okay to be you know, and it's really inspiring you know, to realize yes, I can be from who I am and not have to hide it and still do my thing you know, make a contribution.

Tom Bailey  14:48

And and what I've heard with accents, as well as the audience will very quickly pick up on your accent but they'll also very quickly then tune into it and almost it doesn't become a problem. It just Yes, that they just hear hear that The contents not necessarily. Exactly, yeah. So we've talked a bit about, you know, some of the some of the struggles. And I think one thing I'd like to just touch on now we've talked about as well, baby steps as one of the mechanisms to overcome this, what are the mechanisms are there for people to overcome their fear of public speaking.

Olivia James  15:19

So the biggest thing is, is your nervous system mastering your nervous system, they've got a very, very basic diagram here. So you've got that green zone, the social engagement is where you want to be ideally, when you speak, yeah, most of the time, like the nervous system goes into that fight or flight mode, or better the orangey, red, or even the shutdown when your public speaking. So the trick is to keep your nervous system in, in that in that safe zone. Because when you're in fight flight mode, you're, you'll you'll start to be shaky, you're you might look really like you start to sweat, you start to shake your prefrontal cortex doesn't get enough blood because your body when he gets into fight flight mode, people don't really understand what this means. But basically, your nervous system, by our process of neuro ception has decided that you are not safe and that you may get physically attacked. Yes, getting ready for a physical attack. Yeah. So all the blood goes to your heart, your lungs, your liver, in case you're getting attacked, and you're losing blood. This is what your body does. So the trick is to teach your body actually, you don't need to activate freakout mode, there's no need, I'm not going to get attacked physically. Because what happens is, as soon as you're, you go into that fight or flight mode, you won't be able to handle any questions that come at you. Your your mind might go blank, I mean, I've treat various clients whose mind has gone blank. Yeah, on stage and that's begin. That's the beginning of their phobia. So the real The trick is to really make friends with your nervous system and learn how to regulate your nervous system. So that's like a key part of what I do with people a I treat those sensitizing events and treat the causes where you know the brain connections of where the brain has learned that this is not safe. Yeah, and then also teach people how to calm and regulate their own nervous system. So you know, a client of mine, I we worked together a few sessions she went from like nervous in meetings to being ready to go on BBC, like she works in an investment firm and they she needed gone BBC to talk about the latest figures. Yeah. And so I like I told her a technique that to help her like, deal with any nerves that come up, however prepared you are, you're going on the VPC live or CNBC, you're going to be a little bit nervous. So tricks to like calm that those nervous system, that nervous system response down enough, so you can go through it. Those are really the those are the key things. So mindset isn't going to help you there at all. You need to speak directly to that nervous system. So that's basically the key.

Tom Bailey  18:11

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I love that. So. So we've talked about the, I guess, the challenge my journey, a little bit about your journey, and your clients as well. We talked about some of the coping mechanisms. And I guess one thing I want to just bring up, which you might be able to have some insight into as well is that I believe that I've overcome my fear of public speaking because of the fact that I can now stand up and speak in front of an audience, whether that is virtually or in person. And I think that's because it's still quite an in a controlled environment, in that I'm the speaker, I just want my audience be quiet and listen, and not many things can really go wrong. I'm not going to get hair color in the kinds of environments that I speak, no one's going to throw anything at me. So it's still quite controlled. Whereas when I'm at a social gathering, there's 2030 people around me and conversations happening. Anything can happen at any time. I still haven't got comfortable there yet. Yes. Is that because of that lack of control? Do you think?

Olivia James  19:08

Yes, I think that it's a really good question. And especially hopefully, as we're coming out of COVID Everyone is out of practice. Yeah, I've done various press articles about this as well. So I talk I talk a bit I call a peopling. Right. So we're all learning how to get back into peopling so a lot of my clients will come to me and say, you know, for my work, I have to sort of like, go to social events with like, Kinect with clients. I have to, you know, and it's like, and it's about reacting and I always describe it like two puppies when they're learning how to play together. So they're like their nervous system sort of flips between. Snap Snap by by Ow that hurt. Have I bitten too hard? Or I'm a little bit scared I'm having fun. And it's that that those nervous system states of like reacting to other people in the moment is something that you need to sort of practice in a way that's safe. So because you know, some people, you're going to be in an event and people are going to be drunk, or they just couldn't be pardon my French assholes. And then it's like, how do you handle it without afterwards having this? This feeling of I read this questions, Frenchman, Esprit, this galley, the spirit of the staircase. So as you're leaving the event afterwards, you think, Oh, my God, I should have said this. I should not have said that. What was I thinking? And maybe you sort of beat yourself up. So it's about, there are obviously lots of techniques that you can learn about how to get away from people politely and how to stand your ground. And how there are certainly as women, like we, you know, imagine somebody coming up and saying something really, really sexist. Like, and there is a moment what happens, especially where somebody is like, being really abusive or obnoxious. Who has a higher status that often we the recipient, will go Did he really just say that and we go into this nervous system state called appeasement or freeze, where we either sort of pretend it hasn't happened. Or like, try and laugh it off, or go haha, or like, you know, instead of saying, Did you really just suggest that if I want to get investment, I need to flirt more? You know? Or did you really suggest if I sleep with you, I get a promotion? Because there are ways where you can, like, turn the question back on them. Because in those moments, you're all the attention is on you. And you're just thinking, Did he really just say that, and also, if they're a highest status person, they knew if you say the wrong thing, they can make your life hell. So this is like that this appeasement thing is a key part to like socializing. So and it is about like, after which you were you think, Okay, I think I handled that. Well. Yes, that guy was a dick. But I handled it. Okay. Do you know what I mean? Yeah, called it out, without the whole thing escalating, or whatever it might be. Or, you know, because ever bear in mind, everyone's out of practice. Some people are going to be drunk, some people are going to be not very nice. And it's like, how do you? How do you conduct yourself in that way? So practice is definitely key. And also give yourself a little bit of a break. Everyone's out of practice. Yeah,

Tom Bailey  22:35

that's really useful. And I'll get back to this point of practice. Last kind of question on that. But for me, let's think about in these social settings, we've moved on from public speaking now to social Yeah, lettings and introversion. So, you know, at an event 2030 people, I want to say x and I want to get in I want to ask this question. I want to be funny. I want to tell my story. Yeah. And but I'm three hours in the haven't opened my mouth yet. You know, what, what's happening there? And what can people do about that?

Olivia James  23:05

What's happening is you need to stay in the corner looking at your phone. Yes.

Tom Bailey  23:10

Yes, exactly. Sounds good to me.

Olivia James  23:14

Pretend this like not happening. I think for that's a brilliant networking expert called Wilkin tissue has a lot of sort of tips on this. I think for some people, we have too many high expectations of ourselves. So we got some people have got this idea that I need to shake hands with everyone in the room, give everyone my business card, have everyone think I'm amazing. Instead of giving yourself a target and saying, Okay, I'm gonna have three conversations with interesting people. And that's it. Instead of like, overwhelming yourself, do three, aim for three, and then you can leave if you want. You know, I think that's, especially as you're building your confidence. And like, obviously, try and be interested in people, but if they, if they honestly, will talk about themselves and never ask you about you just make a move, you know?

Tom Bailey  24:07

Yeah, I think I've heard those baby steps again, you know, yes. Go go and speak to one person the next time don't speak to two people. Three people and I guess you're just teaching that nervous system that Brian, that fight or flight response that you're not actually going to get hurt here. Okay,

Olivia James  24:24

exactly. I'd like and again, like that sort of inner critic, sort of try and handle that inner critic, that spirit of the staircase. You don't go there you go again, you're such a loser. You're totally messed up. You're never gonna get good at this. Your business is gonna tank. You're such a loser, you know, like, because that's what the inner critic can start to do. Especially when we're, you know, not super social socially competent. Yes, yes.

Tom Bailey  24:51

Awesome. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this conversation. Are there any final points or tips or anything else you'd like to say before we get into that last call? Question,

Olivia James  25:00

I've got a good tip for people if you're about to speak at an event in your car a little bit, try this genuinely work genuinely works. If you stand there, and two tips, one is you move your neck and scan the environment, you're literally sending calming signals to that really old reptilian part of the brain that there aren't any predators. Yes, number two, if you smile and make eye contact with a few people, ideally, if you can introduce yourself to people in the audience, that will settle your nervous system. And again, it will get your nervous system into that social engagement, where you focus on other people rather than your own anxiety. It genuinely helps, and your audience will love you for it, because you've actually made the effort to say, to get to know them a little bit, too. Yeah. Yeah.

Tom Bailey  25:51

I love that. Yeah, great, great advice, great tips, and has been loads of great advice throughout this whole conversation. And so Olivia, I just want to ask one last question. And that is if anybody would like to reach out to you get in touch or if they want, maybe some help with you as a coach or therapist? And how do people connect with you online?

Olivia James  26:09

So yeah, follow me on LinkedIn or connect with me on LinkedIn is my biggest platform. I've got about 11 and a half 1000 connections online so far. You can also email me, Olivia at Harley Street. My website is Harley Street. And what are the way that I tend to work with people is we're having an initial 15 minute conversation just to make sure that I think you're, you know, I'll be able to help you and you're the right kind of fit. And then we'll have an initial assessment session. And that can be done either face to face in Harley Street or online. And then we could kind of make an action plan to try and work out how much your support you're likely to need for your particular mission. I mean, you know, whether it's a charity or your business or your corporate, like I help people with all those things.

Tom Bailey  26:59

Brilliant. Thank you so much, Olivia. And again, just thank you so much for coming along having this conversation and sharing such great value with our audience.

Olivia James  27:06

Thanks. So it's been a blast. Thank you.