Published on April 21, 2021

How To Speak Up For Yourself When You Don’t Know How

How To Speak Up For Yourself When You Don’t Know How

Have you ever found yourself completely frozen in a moment where you want to speak up for yourself? And later, you think of all the things you could have said? There’s actually a scientific explanation as to why this happens.

When we are faced with an immediate threat, our human nervous system becomes dysregulated. The immediate threat we’re facing could simply be our boss speaking firmly to us about missing a deadline. But evolutionarily speaking, this event will register similarly in our nervous system as a saber-toothed tiger baring its teeth at us.

Now, this nervous system dysregulation can go a couple of ways, according to Dr. Stephen Porges, author of The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). In all cases, when we face a threat, we’ll first go into fight or flight mode. Our heart will start to beat quickly, our sweat glands will activate, and our field of vision will narrow.

If the threat is severe or lasts for a long period of time, we may even get knocked further down what researcher Deb Dana calls the “autonomic ladder” to a frozen or collapsed state.[1]

In either case, whether we’re in fight/flight or freeze/collapse, our brain has very little access to the ability to engage in coherent communication. This is because we’re consumed with ensuring our safety.

Here’s something important to know: these states of dysregulation are not a bad thing. In fact, they evolved to help us survive. But when we’re worried about our survival, we can’t speak up for ourselves easily.

Ensure Your Safety First

Knowing everything we just discussed, first of all, please forgive yourself if moments are going by where you’re not speaking up for yourself. Ask yourself: was I just trying to survive or stay safe at that moment?

If the answer is yes, then no wonder if you may have found yourself placating or frozen instead of speaking up. You are forgiven. What’s more? congrats! You have a well-functioning human nervous system.


To speak our truth, we need to feel safe. So, the reality is that if you don’t currently feel safe with that boss—or that friend, spouse, family member, etc.—you’re gonna have a darn hard time speaking up for yourself at the moment.

Here are two pieces of good news, though:

  1. The best way to practice this skill, especially at the beginning, is after the fact.
  2. The more you practice these skills, the more you’ll be able to use them at the moment as time goes on.

So, go get somewhere safe you can practice, and dive in and learn how to speak up for yourself.

The Voice Body Connection Process

As a voice and movement coach, I have been teaching voice and somatic practices for over a decade, and I’ve been studying them for essentially my whole life (this is embodied research, after all). To help you speak your truth in any situation, I’m going to introduce you to what I call the “Voice Body Connection process.”

Over the years, I created this process by synthesizing knowledge and methods from theatre and singing pedagogy, communication theory, speech science, yoga practice and philosophy, psychology, and especially Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s work Body-Mind Centering.

Here’s what to do: bring your mind to a specific moment that you want to understand more deeply. It can be this moment right now or a moment that you remember from the past. (If it’s from the past, imagine the following questions in the past tense.)

Step 1: Sensation

What is the strongest sensation I feel in my body right now?

We start with this crucial first question. After all, as Bessel van der Kolk’s research teaches us, our bodies keep the score.[2] Before you can speak up for yourself, you need to know what you’re actually feeling. And to understand what you feel, start with your body.


Example: “Right now, my heart is beating really quickly.”

Be sure to keep your answer body-focused!

Step 2: Stimulus

What do I think is the stimulus that led me to feel this sensation?

This is likely a very simple statement about what happened. You should just keep it simple. Otherwise, you might get lost on a thought train.

Example: “And I think it’s because my boss just lectured me about missing the deadline.”

Step 3: Emotions

What are my emotions about noticing all of this?

The next step is to tap into your emotions. If you’re not sure how you’re feeling, here are some basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, happiness, arousal, disgust, and tenderness. Keep in mind that it’s totally reasonable to be experiencing a range of emotions, and you can include them all.

Example: “This makes me feel angry and afraid.”


Step 4: Desires

Do I have any desires related to everything I just noticed?

Next, you can discern any desires that might be coming from all of this. Sometimes, surface-level desires are covering up deeper ones. So, if you’re confused, keep in mind that human desire tends to boil down to the need for safety, comfort, love, and growth.

Example: “And what I really want is some support to get all my work done and to know that I still have my job.”

Step 5: Presence

The transition to help you feel comfortable releasing your voice

Part of the reason we don’t speak up for ourselves the moment something is happening is that we’re not really present. This is essentially another way of saying that our nervous system is not regulated. If thinking through all of this has gotten you agitated in any way again, take a few moments to breathe.

One of the best ways to be sure that you are present is to blink your eyes and focus on the colors, shapes, and textures of the world around you. As you get better and better, you’ll be able to do this process quickly at the moment!

Step 6: Expression

Sharing your voice

The amazing thing about everything you’ve done so far is that they have allowed you to build a script for yourself! If we put the example all together as written above, it currently reads:


“Right now, my heart is beating really quickly and I think it’s because my boss just lectured me about missing the deadline. This makes me feel angry and afraid, and what I really want is some support to get all my work done and to know that I still have my job.”

Now, you’re not necessarily going to say exactly that to your boss—not all of it is necessary. But maybe, what you say to your boss later in the week is something like:

“Hey, when you spoke to me earlier about missing the deadline, I felt upset. I want to let you know that I had too much work on my plate to get it done, and I need some more support if I’m going to meet the existing deadlines. I want to excel at this job so you and I both feel secure.

Pretty great right? And it’s super clean, too. You’re not getting mad at your boss for their outburst. You’re simply speaking your truth.

Step 7: Communication

A real conversation

After you’ve expressed yourself, it’s important to leave space to see the impact you’ve had on the person or people with whom you’re communicating. This is when the real conversation starts and when speaking up for yourself starts to really pay off.

Keep in mind that this process we just went through might continue ad infinitum. You may constantly need to return to your bodily sensations to know what you feel and want to say next. Do this so that you stay grounded in speaking from your own experience—speaking up for yourself—and not in speaking for anyone else.

How This Will Change your life

You may notice that when we use the word “feelings” in the English language, we could be referring to several things: our bodily sensations, our thoughts, our emotions, and even our desires.


The Voice Body Connection process takes apart these different aspects of our feelings so that we can be clear with them. When we use this process to practice getting safe and clarifying our feelings, we will get better and better at speaking up for ourselves. The more you practice this process, the more you will know what to say in the kindest, most effective way.

More Tips on How to Speak Up for Yourself

Featured photo credit: Melany Rochester via


More by this author

Elissa Weinzimmer

Vocal Health and Confidence Coach and Founder of Voice Body Connection

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Last Updated on July 20, 2021

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

Warming up

If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:


  1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
  2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
  3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

Stay hydrated

Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.


Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

2. Focus on your goal

One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.


Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

3. Convert negativity to positivity

There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

4. Understand your content

Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.


However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

5. Practice makes perfect

Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

6. Be authentic

There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.


Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

7. Post speech evaluation

Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

Improve your next speech

As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:


  • How did I do?
  • Are there any areas for improvement?
  • Did I sound or look stressed?
  • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
  • Was I saying “um” too often?
  • How was the flow of the speech?

Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:


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