Authenticity and courage for public speaking – A conversation with Natira McDermott

Published by Access 2 Perspectives on

Natira McDermott is a public speaking coach who helps her clients create successful businesses by dropping perfectionism and embracing their own compelling visibility. Despite winning her first high school debate, Natira spent most of her life avoiding an audience. (The irony of her being a public speaking coach is not lost on her.)
Natira shares with us key skills that people (and researchers) who speak in public should have to become visible by speaking like themselves instead of a textbook. Prior to her coaching career, Natira spent 17 years at advertising and media agencies where she led teams in over 150 pitches and coached dozens of executive teams. Natira is based in New York City and provides individual coaching, executive leadership coaching, presentation, and public speaking workshops. 

“When you get up to speak about your work, you might feel that part of you really wants to make your message seen and heard and felt – but another part of you is terrified of being visible. The work I do with clients is to support both of these parts – the one that wants to shine and the one that wants to hide.”

Natira McDermott

Personal profile

Natira McDermott profile picture
Image credit: Natira McDermott
Image credit: Natira McDermott, Some of the horses I knit during the pandemic.

Website: nlmcdermott.com

Linkedin: Natira McDermott – Confidence & Public Speaking Coach – NLMcDermott Coaching

Which researcher – dead or alive – do you find inspiring? Amy Cuddy

What is your favorite animal and why? Horses – Because they are beautiful and I love to ride. 

Name your (current) favorite song and interpret/group/musician/artist. Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen AND The Story by Brandi Carlile AND Glory Bound by The Wailin’ Jennys

What is your favorite dish/meal? Fresh bread and cold butter 

TRANSCRIPT

Jo: It’s great having you here. Thanks for joining. 

Natira: My pleasure. I am so happy to be here with you, Jo. 

Jo: Ok. So everyone, please meet Natira McDermott, a coach professionally working with female entrepreneurs to overcome stage fright and to embrace public speaking. Please share with us a little bit about what you currently do, why you’re so passionate about the work that you do, and then maybe later, if we could talk a little bit about the journey that took you there.

Natira: I coach women on being more themselves when they’re in front of an audience. So that will be dropping their perfectionism. Some of that anxiety that happens when we get in front of a group of people and feel very scrutinized. I help them be more themselves and really tap into their authenticity, because that’s what I found. That’s what’s most compelling for me. When I talk to someone, if they’re giving a talk or I’m talking one on one with them, it’s when they’re really themselves and I feel them there, that I really like them and want to listen to them. 

Jo: And then authenticity. I’ve tried working on that for myself, and sometimes it’s hard to grasp what it is. How can I dig it up? How can I tell that other people can see it in me?

Natira: It’s a buzzword, for sure. Authenticity. And I think it’s worth the work of figuring out what it is for you. I know for me, I went through most of my life without having really any idea of who I am and what I wanted and what I liked and all of that kind of stuff. And authenticity is about tapping into really what makes me thick, what I’m interested in, what I love to do, who I am. So here’s an example. Actually, imagine me in front of a group of people, and I seem like a completely different person because I am taking on this role of being in front of a group of people. And then you compare me to being next with you having a cocktail in the living room. And I’m completely different. And so what I try to do is to help people be more like themselves in the living room when they’re in front of people, when they’re in that scary environment and not necessarily so informal that it’s not appropriate, but to kind of hold on to that quality that makes them them. 

Jo: You basically establish a comfort zone on stage. Is that what you do? 

Natira: A confidence? 

Jo: A comfort zone? 

Natira: A comfort zone, yeah, exactly. 

Jo: Until you’re safe on stage. 

Natira: Yes. You can take it off stage. You can put it into a Zoom situation. And actually the goal of just feeling like you’re in the room right here and you’re not locked up in your head trying to do something and trying to seem a certain way. And it’s a challenge. And honestly, it’s something that is, I think an ongoing challenge is to get and I think we just get better and better at it if we work. But I haven’t met anyone who is perfect. 

Jo: That’s interesting to hear and important to underline, to let go of the perfectionism. Because as humans, maybe humans especially, or as humans, we tend to measure ourselves by comparing ourselves to others, not seeing that others have had years of practice and experience in what we are just about to dig into and to engage in. 

Natira: I’m very familiar with perfectionism. I never used to identify as a perfectionist. I think I just didn’t like the word. But I have realized that I have a tremendous amount of focus on succeeding or failing. And I have this measure, and I realized that this is not even a fair scale. There’s the chance of success, and then the alternative is total and utter failure. The window for success is very small. There’s not a lot of room for that. But most of it is the downside. And realizing that I’m like, okay, you know what? I need to actually redefine what success is for me, because that version of success, that whole measuring thing, is not working for me anymore. I’m too old for it.

Jo: You don’t look old enough to have such a realization, but I hear you, and I think I’m coming close to the same. It’s not like perfectionism. I think I have a similar experience of not being aware. I thought, what is perfectionism? I’m not perfect myself. So how can I even call myself a perfectionist? And yet also having to strive for something, having goals, and then not believing that I can even get anything anywhere near.

Natira: I love that you said, that ‘I’m not enough.’ ‘I’m not perfect enough to be a perfectionist.’ It’s so good.

Jo: But then when it’s finally clicked, what it means to be obsessed about it has to be perfect before you even start sharing. It doesn’t make sense. It does not make sense because there’s so much to offer and to share and to talk about, like for presentation or speech, whatever. And there’s a demand. We’ve been called for giving presentations and hired. And then why not just go out there? We know where it comes from. It’s like this famous fight or flight mode in our brain. 

Natira: Let me just say one thing, which is that I think it’s very convenient to be a perfectionist and to avoid putting yourself at risk. I think it’s like a very good excuse. Believe me, I’ve done it like crazy. And it’s that, you know what? I’m going to wait until I’m better at this before doing it. I’m going to wait until I ‘xyz’. I like this framework of thinking rather than making them think about the long term. Always be thinking in terms of what can I do in a week or in two weeks, like thinking of little leaps that you can make that actually get you out into your uncomfortable zone. I actually did an exercise of this. I don’t know if you saw this. I realized it was last year, and I realized that one of the things that I was completely nervous about was doing a Facebook Live. The idea was horrible to me. And I had this image of people rolling their eyes like people that I’ve worked with in the past before or whomever, because it’s Facebook, though, anyone can see it. And I thought that would be the most horrible thing. But there’s something about it that’s about my own visibility and my own bravery that I wanted to do. And so I did these different little snippets of Facebook lives just to kind of go, you know what? I’m doing something uncomfortable, and this is uncomfortable. And I have to say I was, like, supremely proud of myself for doing it. 

Jo: I remember that. 

Natira: Do you remember? They were just about and for me, it was the act of acting. 

Jo: So is that then still authentic? I’m just pulling maybe a leg or not.

But is that a healthy approach towards authenticity to fake it until you make it? I think that’s the thing, right? Because you mentioned you acted. 

Natira: Acted as in taking action. 

Jo: Oh, as in taking action.Okay, sorry. 

Natira: Just some backstory here. As a kid, I was always just dreaded public speaking. I dreaded it. And I would try to worm out of any situation that required it. So in high school, there was a big debate. When I was 17, I was supposed to do this debate. I was asking my mother for some kind of poison that would incapacitate me for 24 hours so I couldn’t do it. And when I worked at an ad agency, I would get asked to speak or stand up in front of different agencies and talk. And I would always try to find someone else to do it for me because I was like, I just can’t do this. And so I am very much aware of the nerves and the judgment of what it feels like to be out of your comfort zone. So I’m especially sensitive to that. And I think that in some ways, that makes me very good as a coach because I do get it. And I have studied what works for me and what has helped me do it. 

Jo: Yeah. Sounds highly reasonable. And it also answers the other question, what led you to doing that kind of work today? Because you have experienced it yourself and you learned how to overcome and find your way. And now you’re sharing.

So were there other occurrences in your trajectory and your career development and the different positions you are holding. When did it click to you that, ‘I want to be a coach’. ‘I want to help others to get through this.’ 

Natira: So I worked at an ad agency in the City, and I worked in a new business. So I would help the executives pitch for new clients. So I would coach them there, like their strategy director, creative director, account director, and help them get themselves into shape to go and present some ideas to clients and try to win the business. And I really liked that the challenge was that I just did not care about advertising at all. And that felt like a big fraud. I felt like a fraud for that. I kind of didn’t want to acknowledge I just don’t care about this business that we’re in. But I did like the coaching. I loved that. I loved helping people be really good. And it was partly helping people be more likable in front of a client because sometimes people will come into a room and kind of be just overly confident and off putting. So actually helping them with that. There was one situation where I was in a room, I was in a leadership meeting, and a woman in the group was being asked some different questions. And I was watching her, and I watched her basically undermine herself, like, moment after moment after moment. And afterwards I went up to her and just said, I think that you can rise. The people in this room are looking to you to lead them, and I can hear it, and you can actually step up to that rather than be so deferential. And it was an interesting moment because she wasn’t my client at all. Like, she was just a woman there who I just could see was doing that thing that a lot of people will do, which is not stepping up, not waiting to be told you can run this thing. 

Jo: Well, yeah. I think I’ve been in similar situations where there was somebody taking up all the energy, but also the space in the room and the speaking time, and you could see others sitting on the edge of the chair wanting to say something, but not daring to, because there was so much noise already. 

Natira: Yeah. I coached one woman when I did actually go into coaching. And so I started being a coach. I got out of advertising altogether and started being a coach and working with different people. And one of my first clients was someone who just always, when she was in a meeting, would always sit back in the back corner. She would take notes, she would be very diligent about everything and was excellent, but just didn’t feel comfortable, like, actually speaking her opinion. 

Jo: Wow. 

Natira: Yeah, I know. And it was really cool to watch her transform and suddenly through the thing of actually just breaking through that barrier of becoming much more confident so that she was able to speak. And actually, this is the interesting thing, too, because she was afraid of really speaking up, it’s almost like she didn’t have any opinions. Like the opinions were getting buried inside. She wasn’t really even aware of them. And then as her fear lessened, her opinions and points of view got much more apparent. And she found herself, like, actually really speaking up much more and with less of a worry or question about how she feels about this? 

Jo: It sounds like a big breakthrough. And you witnessed that it happened, like, in one day or in that situation in the room, like, wow, okay, that’s big. And then how long after these experiences, did you take coaching lessons? Or, no. Did you take a coaching certificate or basically, in other words, when did the transition happen for you? When did you then decide, I can do this professionally? 

Natira: I decided that I could do this professionally right away, and that was a decision that was based on the years of coaching executives in that corporate environment. And so I started working with clients outside of the office. 

Jo: So you had the methodology already in place? 

Natira: I didn’t have a methodology. I had an approach, but it was very much homegrown versus I didn’t get a certificate for it. 

Jo: Well, in other words, authentic, like an authentic approach. 

Natira: No, but in a sense, I have trained.  One of the coaches that I trained with is actually based in San Francisco, Tara Moore. And that was a great training in terms of working with clients and actually less about how they show up and how they present themselves, but more on helping clients kind of see themselves more clearly

Jo:  With the messaging

Natira: for who they are, who they are and like what you said earlier about how I find my authenticity. That kind of inquiry into yourself. Like, that’s what I learned through that coaching; how to support someone with that work. 

Jo: I bet it’s not possible to just give a short answer to how that’s done, but can you share stuff? Apparently the whole process you have to go through. But are there some of the kind of construction sites that you can point towards where the work needs to be done? Like, is it mindset, is it clothing? Is it going back to the childhood experiences to overcome whatever?

 Natira: There are some exercises that you can do that help you define more about what you care about and what you value. And I think that’s a really good starting point. If I asked you, what do you value? What are two or three characteristics about you that you love the most?

Jo: Yeah. And sometimes we just feel that, like, I’ve in the past, really into my 30s, I’ve felt strongly about situations and also justice, but it took some time until I could actually get hold of that as being part of me and treasuring that also and seeing it as an asset to me as a person. So that’s the kind of work where somebody else can help me in this case, where I could have reached where I am now much quicker and earlier in my lifetime. 

Natira: Yeah. One thing that is interesting and this was research. I think I can’t remember who did the research, but it was that one thing that is really effective for having someone be more comfortable in a challenging situation. So that could be on a stage, it could be in giving a presentation or a talk. One of the things that is really effective is for that person to really understand who they are and what they value and be grounded in that knowledge. One of the ways to get there is that defining what is a peak experience from my life that made me the most energized, alive, filled with that kind of life, forest feeling what was a time like that and understanding what it felt like and be so aware of that that just knowing that in your bones helps you when you go out in that kind of challenging situation.

Jo: Wow. I see myself on stage in several situations in the past and try to remember how I felt suddenly nervous. And in some instances I felt more comfortable and it was easier, and in others it was more difficult. 

Natira: What do you think is the difference between those? 

Jo: I think groundedness in myself. I think it’s also important to understand and bring to the forefront. Like, why am I here? What do these people want from me? What can I offer? I actually do have something to offer and not to get drifted away with, ‘who am I?’.

I see now what you said about how authenticity comes into play? Well, I think it’s an orchestration of struggling with the stage fright itself, which is a fight of flights, reflex, but then also knowing who we are, who I am in this case, and that there is a spot to be filled and that people want to hear from me and all of that. And not only for the topic but also for the personality parts. 

Natira: Exactly. 

Jo: Which helps also as humans, as social animals kind of thing, the personality helps to communicate, to get the message across, whatever the message is, right? 

Natira: And one thing that is, I think really important is acknowledging what the value is of speaking to other people versus giving them a paper to read or giving them an essay or an email or like a written piece document that standing up or just speaking with someone else. It’s really about connecting with them as human to human and telling a story, sharing a message. But actually that connection point and one is that there are two things that audiences judge a speaker based on, and one is their trustworthiness. So do I trust this person? Can this trusted person hurt me or seems shifty or dangerous, and then the other one is their competence. So do they know what they’re talking about? But far and away, the biggest part is trustworthiness. And in order to be a trustworthy person and to come across that way, we have to have an element of personal power, of actually believing in ourselves and feeling that kind of confidence, which sometimes yeah, you kind of have to play it up a bit in your own head to be able to be there. Because if you can get in front of an audience and be open, almost vulnerable, but open in the sense of I’m not closed down, being so bold and consumed with what I’ve got in my head and the message that I’m about to share. 

Jo: In your coaching there’s no necessity to go into the topics. Are you also working with your clients sometimes on the messaging, and then it’s the client’s job to get the message string right and you coach them towards fine tuning it?

Natira: I usually coach them to express their ideas as clearly as possible and to be as human as possible while they’re doing it. That’s really what I do. And I think a lot of people in executive functions, probably in academia also, I’m not as familiar, but people can get very much locked into the subject matter and the facts of it and less in that interface that happens with an audience when you’re talking about it and how to boil it down and bring it into real words and a real connection there. 

Jo: Right. Yeah, I think that’s certainly true of our researchers. And to be focused on the topic, to be super nervous about, ‘I know I have to present and is this even enough to present? What will people charge me for how little I found after five years of research?’ And then getting the personality aspects right. So through your coaching, there’s a lot of focus on appearance and authenticity, on the self, the persona of the presenter. And at what point can the focus go back to the topic? Because for the audience, it’s clear that subconsciously the audience would consume both. I mean, they’re there for the topic, but they get it through the messenger. So therefore, it’s so important. But now for the presenter with all the nervousness and stage fright, and I have to focus on how I come across not for the topic, but me as a person. And then where’s the headspace that’s remaining for the extra.

Natira: I know. You can see sometimes when someone is really nervous about something and they just speak really, really quickly to kind of get it over with.

And that’s something that’s a very simple, straightforward fix of slowing down, of slowing down and picturing what you’re saying so that you’re actually there with your audience in the discussion that you’re having and you’re taking them through the content of your study, but you’re doing it while you’re actually kind of imagining it also. So you’re experiencing it and you’re getting a connection with them in that way. 

Jo: So it all melts into one thing. So there’s no worry about losing one or the other once there’s enough practice on the topic. And also in research, of course, we know that presentations have to be prepared. You want to practice, rehearse, to get the content right and straightforward and with no interruptions; or what’s the word? In German we say blackouts. I have a blackout, but yeah freez. It happened to me once. Don’t remind me. But also, life went on. I wouldn’t have thought seriously. When I was freezing on stage, it was less than a minute, a couple of seconds. I don’t know how long. I was like, oh, my God, I need to die. Like now. And then life just went on, and I was like okay, that’s weird. And then at some point it was okay. It’s really not that bad. The world is not going to end because of that. 

Natira: No, it’s not. The one motto I have is lower the bar. Like the bar of performance, lowering it and then being able to leap over it if you get to that point. But yeah, not expecting perfection, but expecting showing up like preparation, but then being present when you’re doing it. 

Jo: I also love what you said in the beginning, letting go of the perfectionism, daring to be imperfect in presenting in our case. And then a common recommendation for presentations and prepping for those is just to watch some Ted Talks and see how they do it. Normally they’re super polished but also not perfect. And I was just thinking, what if you tell someone, watch a Ted Talk and look for the things that are not perfect and why you would think like, oh, I wouldn’t have thought that this is possible in a Ted Talk kind of situation. 

Natira: What is another challenge that some of your research scientists that you work with are  facing?

Jo: Same as others, really. And I think the key is to really let go of perfectionism, see how others do it. See that others also, like senior professors, are not perfect and not meant to be perfect because perfectionism is not approachable. It comes across as not fake but artificial.

Natira: Exactly. And I think the goal, rather than kind of perfect, the goal can be the most yourself and the most feeling like yourself and the most comfortable that you can be. But the first part of this is just doing things like actually starting to show up and starting to speak up, starting to just express yourself more. And then it’s like after that, after you get that muscle working, eventually getting to the point of going, ‘how do I make this better?’. How do I actually connect more with my audience? And I think it requires curiosity on our parts like, how do I do this? Because it’s incredibly personal, right? Like what feels good for me as a presenter and as an audience is totally different than other people. But what works for me is to make myself show up and feel more myself and feel also so much more engaged with the message that I have and the topic and the audience and what works.

Jo: Exactly. Yeah. I think that’s also a perfect closing remark. And I’ve learned a lot. I actually had like five or so eureka moments in our conversation , like new views on how to interplay between focusing on the technical bits of preparing your presentation and speech versus working on your appearance, your courage and all of that.

So can we just jump into this last bit of the conversation? Because I wanted to make that point. But you can also tell me if it really wasn’t a point. And the point I wanted to make is; so when it comes to Ted talks, they are usually referred to as great presentation styles. And I think for TEDx, the one in Canada, Toronto, wherever, like the main stage. I don’t know how intense that training is, but it looks so polished and it’s a nice reference point because you can actually learn quite a bit from just watching these. But what I’m now learning from our conversation here is how about we instead focus on what’s not perfect even in Ted talks, because they still have this authentic bit. The speakers are, I think, encouraged to remain themselves and not to I mean, the dad’s way of saying things looks a little bit mainstream. Is it mainstream? Yeah. And still many speakers still come across as highly authentic. 

Natira: I would say that it’s more intriguing to me to watch Ted talk and look for when I really feel that person. 

Jo: Oh, yeah.

Natira: Instead of looking for the flaw. Looking for the flaw, I think it feeds into that machine of what’s wrong with the situation? What’s wrong with that? 

Jo: No, I just wanted to highlight this as an opportunity, as a stepping stone towards that authenticity. But just to realize there is no imperfection anywhere. No, there is imperfection everywhere and no perfectionism anywhere, even on these big stages, even by senior, senior, double doctor people, Professors. But yeah, the way you express this, letting go of perfectionism, seeing that there’s a lot of imperfection all around us and embracing that towards life; this is what allows us to connect with each other and not to see imperfectionism as a flaw, but rather as humane and normal. And so I was obsessed and scared to have to polish everything to highly shiny objects. 

Natira: Exactly. Exactly. We don’t. 

Jo: Yeah. Okay. So let’s close off on that. Thank you so much for joining us today in this episode. I hope you’ll be back sometime soon. Whenever there’s plenty more to talk about when it comes to presenting for us in a research context or in academic context, but also bridging towards other sectors of society, there are plenty of opportunities where people share their thoughts, ideas, learning, knowledge, inspiration. And thank you for being such an inspiration for us today. 

Natira: Thank you, Jo. It was a total pleasure.

References (related research articles)

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