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How to Become an Empowered Speaker

I have been coaching public speakers in the San Francisco Bay Area for thirteen years. Along the way I’ve noticed changes in clientele, trends in topics, and shifts regarding my clients and their needs. In the spring of 2020, there was a frantic shift towards online presenting and requests for honing on-screen skills. How to make the most out of an on-line presentation was, for the past eighteen months a hot topic. Now that we are returning to in-person conferences and presentations my clients are re-experiencing stage fright and their once dormant "inner critic" is re-emerging.

The following is an excerpt from my book where I address different kinds of "inner critics" and how to remove them through public speaking exercises to become a more empowered speaker.

Excerpt from Grace Under Pressure: A Masterclass in Public Speaking By Lisa Wentz


Our inner dialogues are full of many different voices. These express unique parts of our personality and the messaging we’ve internalized over the course of our lives. Some voices may emerge into our interactions, as we play various roles and express ourselves in different situations. Other voices may be present in the backdrop, guiding our thoughts and actions in ways we may hardly be aware of.

As public speakers, we need to cultivate inner dialogues and voices—a self-talk—that supports our message and our presence. This is often easier said than done, however. We may need to bring our attention and efforts to dismantling an inner dialogue that is harsh, judgmental, and undermining.

Where does this inner dialogue come from? How does it undermine your efforts? How can you reclaim any damaged sense of power and confidence as you develop as a speaker? In this chapter, we go further underneath the surface than we did in the chapter on false beliefs. We look at how trauma of various kinds can result in an inner dialogue dominated by a voice we call the Inner Critic.

Trauma and the Inner Critic

Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one's ability to cope or to integrate the emotions involved with that experience. Trauma could be indirect, as in witnessing a fatal car crash, or direct, as in being involved in the crash itself. Repetitive trauma, especially in early childhood, has a more severe physiological effect on an individual than a single event, as our identity and physiological patterns form around these experiences.

One key difference between stage fright, and stage fright brought on by trauma, is the presence of a debilitating inner critic. A client who has suffered repetitive trauma, be it physical, sexual, emotional, or a combination will reveal to me an inner dialogue that may be so abusive it is heart wrenching to watch. This can have a profound effect on how the client relates to public speaking.

The Bridge between Therapy and Public Speaking

Therapy, yoga, meditation, and many other practices may support us in healing and moving through trauma. But there remains a gap between meditation and therapy, and the moment when

the trauma is affecting us—in this case, when you are speaking in public. The inner critic doesn’t show up unless you are in a vulnerable situation or a position that you don’t think you can handle. It feels bigger than we can cope with. Until we can bridge this gap—and work with what arises in the present moment, the strength of the inner critic may continue to undermine us.

The missing link for addressing the impact of trauma on public speaking is talking out loud, and physicalizing our inner experience—not imagining in your head or sitting in one position. Actors know this well. This is one of the reasons for rehearsals. Actors speak out the words of the character, and explore movements that match the characters words and personality. In public speaking, we rarely get to this. We hold back the voices and characters influencing our thoughts and movements. As we bring these to the fore, we can work much differently, free up energy, and make many discoveries.

When I have a client with a strong inner critic, I get them to speak out what the inner critic is saying in the moment—that’s the moment that needs to be bridged. The physical act of speech itself shows you are deciding to get the upper hand. It defines the inner dialogue better, giving it concrete shape and feeling. Then we have the clarity to release our identification with the voice of the inner critic and the disempowering messages it speaks. Those who have worked extensively with their trauma may still need this step-in order to connect the dots and link their voice into their healing process and maturation as a speaker.

In its secrecy, your inner critic has power over you. In the process of speaking it out, its hold on you shrinks. That power over you is released and restored to you. You can be present in the room and not be pulled elsewhere, like into self-doubt and debilitating views.

For people with a strong inner critic, it may be difficult to imagine what it is like not to have one. In a vulnerable situation that seems to require capacities beyond what you have, you are able to recognize this and decide a course of action. You may not suddenly be able to resolve your situation. But you will lack a negative self-regard and punishing, fearful inner commentary.

What follows here are several client experiences and situations that illustrates the ways an inner critic develops and may show up in a speaker’s journey.

Identifying the Voice (a client story)

Betty entered my office for her 6 p.m. appointment 20 minutes late. She looked haggard, out of breath, and a bit chaotic. This was our first meeting. Connie, who is a doctor in the field of cancer research, is faced with the task of presenting her work. Her blue eyes were nearly bloodshot, as she sat down, taking the glass of water from my hand. "I need to tell you something,” she said in an extremely shaky voice. "I'm terrified."

Betty’s eyes filled with tears. I calmly put a box of tissues down in front of her. "You can tell me as much or as little as you would like," I said, hoping she would feel safe and reassured that, no matter what she said, I would be able to help her. I also wanted to convey to her that she was perfectly entitled to speak.

"Do you know why you are terrified?" I asked.

"Yes,” she answered. “My mother was verbally abusive to me from when I was a little girl until adulthood." When I probed for examples, and asked how often, she said, "I was told daily that I was stupid and shouldn't speak . . . It lessened as a teenager because I was able to avoid her, but it was still at least once a week."

Though my external demeanor remained calm, internally I was vacillating between sadness and anger. The woman sitting across from me, who was clearly very kind, was robbed of her right to enjoy, or even acknowledge her strengths, by a very sick mother who had set out to break her down.

"I'm sorry,” Betty said. “I think I'm going to start to cry." She hadn’t noticed that she’d already been crying for near ten minutes and was halfway through the box of tissues I’d placed near her. I reassured her that she was in a safe place and would not be criticized for being human.

Betty had done everything she could to put a barrier between herself and her inner critic, which was born out of her mother’s repetitive verbal abuse. However, at this point in her life, her survival techniques of mild dissociation and avoidance, which were helpful growing up, were no longer paying off. Presenting her work in front of others, particularly senior people in her field, gave her inner critic license to work overtime.

We were 15 minutes into the session, when I felt I had enough information to discuss solutions. I started by saying, "Betty, a woman did this to you and now a different woman is going to help you undo it." Then, I taught her how to slow down and deepen her breath. This helped her slow her heart rate and her thoughts, and to release some of the tension she was carrying. She was soon able to focus on her presentation. As she delivered her material, every once in a while, she would stop and stare at her laptop. I misinterpreted this as simply thinking through her material.

When Betty finished, I asked her how it felt to present. “Did you hear your mother’s criticisms while you were presenting?" She responded, "Yes, that's why I kept stopping." Betty was allowing these criticisms to have equal weight with the time she spent talking about her research. I asked what the negative messages were so she could bring them more into the conscious arena, to lessen the impact they were having on her.

We, then, worked on my “Say It Out Loud” exercise. We continued our work the following session by going through what I call the “A Conversation” exercise. Both exercises help the speaker identify and gain power over the inner critic’s influence. I could see that the impact of her inner critic was lessening. A more balanced, less critical inner dialogue began to emerge.

Too Much Pressure In my private practice experience, an inner critic that developed from unreasonable expectations is one of the most common. Children who grow up with high expectations to succeed become adept at hiding their inner critic.

Having not been physically abused or verbally assaulted in an obvious manner, it does not occur to them they have been wronged by their caregivers. Many of these clients were loved and given nice homes and opportunities. However, they were also given strong messaging that failure of any kind was not an option. They were not allowed the normal human process of making mistakes and learning from them. Instead, they were pressured to be “perfect.”

In this environment, the child feels an unreasonable amount of responsibility to make a parent or caregiver happy by fulfilling the caregiver’s expectations. These expectations to succeed at everything are not realistic. Inevitably, the child will fail and begin to self-criticize. The physiological responses are often the same as a person who has experienced direct trauma. The sensation of being overwhelmed, unable to speak, articulate thoughts clearly, or stay present in high stakes environments becomes normal.

The Alcoholic or Dysfunctional Home Growing up in an environment where your basic emotional and/or physical needs were not secure can send messages similar to the effects of trauma, as described earlier in the chapter. In a home where one or both parents were addicted to a substance, the child’s needs become secondary. Children begin to question their own self-worth at a young age in this environment. From feelings of inadequacy, the inner critic begins to emerge. A child growing up in an environment without adequate love or protection can develop strong undermining thoughts, such as “that was stupid,” “you will fail,” or “everyone thinks you are embarrassing.” No matter how hard they try, nothing ever seems good enough.

Much of these feelings are hidden. Some people justify this voice as one that pushes them to do better, to achieve more, and the perfectionism seems to pay off. However, there is a vast difference between critiquing and criticizing. The first can be a healthy way to develop skills. The latter does nothing for you. The inner critic stops you from being able to think creatively about the work you are attempting to articulate. It is a judgmental voice that interferes with your capacity to analyze a situation in a realistic manner.

Exercises to Reduce or Remove Your Inner Critic There are many steps you can take to reduce your inner critic. The first step in my coaching is always the same. Acknowledge the inner critic exists. The second step is to articulate out loud what the critic is saying. Declare that these thoughts are false beliefs and that you are willing to eradicate them and replace them with facts. The third step is to access and enlist more inner support to counter the inner critic’s influence, and to strengthen other aspects of your personality.

Although I wish it wasn’t the case, the reality is many people reading this will have experienced some form of abuse, too much pressure or other forms of trauma in their life. If you have, there may be reasons why your subconscious creates a barrier to enable you to avoid being seen and heard by groups of people. A strong inner critic may be influencing your journey in life and as a speaker. What’s important is that you explore it and seek to connect the dots. You can face your inner critic and remove it permanently. This fact comes as a surprise to many of my clients. You can start now by allowing your awareness to enable you to make clear choices and to cultivate inner voices that truly support you.

If you need assistance, you can reach me at

Lisa Wentz is a public speaking expert, and author of the groundbreaking book Grace Under Pressure: A Masterclass in Public Speaking. Lisa is best known for helping her clients quickly overcome internal blocks and transform into fearless, eloquent speakers. Considered one of the top coaches in the San Francisco Bay Area, Lisa has been featured on CNBC and in TIME Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, L.A. Daily Journal, INC among others. Lisa holds a master’s degree in Voice and Speech Pedagogy from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London.



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