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Doubt: The kryptonite of public speaking

5 min read


Everyone knows Superman’s great weakness: Kryptonite. It’s the one thing that’s guaranteed to suck away his strength and destroy his power. As public speakers, we all face a similar weakness that can bring us down and destroy our confidence or credibility. That weakness is doubt.

Superman did his research and developed strategies to overcome his weakness. Luckily, we don’t need to wear a lead-lined suit on stage, but as speakers we too can use proven antidotes to conquer our doubts and let our superpowers emerge.

These are the three types of doubt that can take the wind out of your sails as a presenter:

  • Self-doubt
  • Doubting your message
  • Doubting your audience

Each of these forms of kryptonite can destroy the effectiveness of your presentation, so it pays to take advantage of these potent antidotes to vanquish your doubts.

Doubting yourself

Self-doubt is perhaps the most perilous form of kryptonite for a speaker. You know what I’m talking about: that internal nagging voice that makes you question yourself every step of the way. “Why did they ask me to do this? Will they like me? What if I make a mistake?”

Based on my 30 years’ experience as a speaker coach, I can promise that this is the one that will take you down. Every person I have ever worked with experiences self-doubt. That includes c-suite executives, federal government officials, celebrities, and yes, even me!

The antidote: Focus on the audience

Know that you are in good company, and make your listeners more important than any anxiety you are experiencing. Keep the focus on how your message will benefit your audience. Making it all about them, not you, will refocus your thinking and your energy, and help ensure your success.

Doubting your message

Have you ever been asked to speak about something that’s outside your comfort zone? Maybe you need to speak about a topic that you’re not very knowledgeable about, or make an announcement that you don’t completely agree with. Or you may have to fill in and deliver someone else’s presentation.

The fact is that content drives delivery, so you’re on shaky ground if you don’t believe in what you are saying. We’ve all sat through painful presentations where it’s obvious that the speaker has no passion, or worse, doesn’t agree with the content he’s delivering. You can’t expect others to respond to a message that you don’t believe or care about yourself. Be more than a talking head!

The antidote: Make it your own

First of all, review the content and make sure you completely understand it. If you don’t get it, the audience certainly won’t!

  • Consider these changes to make the presentation your own — adjust the language or change the examples to better reflect how you would approach and explain the subject matter.
  • If it makes more sense to you, you can re-organize the content and change the order of the points.
  • As long as you don’t modify the intent of the presentation, you can even tweak the core message to reflect your own unique perspective.

Your goal as a speaker is to be heard and understood, and many times to inspire the audience to take action. Think about the best way to achieve that goal, and make it your own to make it more effective.

Doubting your audience

There are many variations of this form of kryptonite:

  • Doubting your listeners’ interest in the topic.
  • Doubting their ability to be open-minded about a new idea.
  • Doubting their willingness to take action.
  • Doubting their ability to understand the message.

Nothing will drain your energy and suck the life out of your speech like believing that no one cares or that you have no chance to move your audience to action. Why bother if you’re doomed to fail before you begin?

The antidote: Get to know your listeners

When you’re facing this type of doubt, you have some homework to do. Get out there and discover what your audience knows, feels and most importantly, believes. Then use that information to help you develop a presentation that will truly resonate and inspire them to act.

  • If you doubt their interest in the topic, seek out an aspect of the subject that does interest them and learn why it’s important to them.
  • If you doubt their willingness to act, find out if they truly are reluctant. Discover why, and what it would take to make them more willing. You may find you simply need to adjust your own expectations and ask for a more realistic response from your audience.
  • If you feel they will disagree with your core message, find out why and consider adjusting the message. You may decide to take a different position or change your approach.
  • When you understand what your audience believes about your subject, you can start from a point of common ground to make your listeners feel understood. Then you’ll be better able to get them to go along with you to a new idea, or guide them to take action.

Don’t let doubt undermine your superpowers! The next time you feel yourself getting derailed by one of these forms of kryptonite, try these strategies to regain your control, your energy and your effectiveness as a speaker.

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication adviser specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at and

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