Speaking and Presenting: Surfing the Shame Wave

Speaking and Presenting: Surfing the Shame Wave

You just gave the best presentation ever. You were calm, confident and engaging. The audience loved you!

But then you sit down. Flooded with adrenaline, your brain works quickly, evaluating your performance—your dreadful, awful performance. In high resolution, your brain replays the errors, the omissions, that joke nobody laughed at. Moments ago you were proud, now you’re embarrassed. You vow to never speak in public again.

But wait! Public speaking skills improve your life. No kidding. So before you give up, let me throw you a life preserver.

What happened?

You’ve been hit by a Shame Wave. It may feel like you’re drowning in shame, but you can and will survive. Hang on tight; I’ll get you back to shore and show you how to stay safe.

What’s a Shame Wave?

A Shame Wave is a strong and sudden tidal wave of shame and embarrassment that slams into many presenters right after they present. Shame Waves attack beginners and experts.

Where do Shame Waves come from?


Humans are social creatures who crave community. To be part of a community depends on that community accepting you. Human brains try to protect us from getting kicked out of our community by stopping us from doing things the community may not like. Embarrassment—the painful shame felt when we stand out for a bad reason—is a tool our brains use to stop us from doing things the community may not like.

When we present, the brain can’t predict our community’s response, so it senses a risk and uses embarrassment to try to stop us.

While embarrassment protects us from getting kicked out of our community, it can also hold us back. A bit of embarrassment keeps us humble—too much becomes a Shame Wave.


It’s human nature to evaluate our own performance. This helps us learn and improve but used unskillfully can generate Shame Waves.

Many of us learn by focusing on the negative. Reviewing our presentations, we tend to remember only mistakes and problems. Even if 99% of the presentation was perfect, our brain focuses on the 1% that wasn’t.

Try this simple perspective trick. Hold your hand at arm’s length. How big is it? Now hold it right in front of your eyes. How big is it? Huge, right? It’s the same with self-evaluation; if we focus on the 1%, it feels like everything was terrible. This feeling can generate Shame Waves.

Why are Shame Waves bad?

Shame Waves are destructive. Not to be confused with useful feedback, Shame Waves are mean. Useful feedback is gentle, timely and appropriate. Shame Waves are violent, inconsiderate and hateful. At best they inhibit learning, at worst they drown your self-esteem.

Shame Waves damage your self-confidence too. They also damage your learning-confidence—the belief that you can improve at something. Shame Waves can make you give up.

Shame Waves, helicopters and failure

Shame Waves are like helicopter parents. Although their intentions are helpful—protecting us—there’s lots of subtle but powerful negative messaging. Shame Waves tell us “for our own good” that:

  • You’re not perfect at this
  • It’s not ok to not be perfect
  • Because you’re not perfect, you’re a failure
  • Failure is not ok
  • Failure never leads to success
  • If you fail at something you should quit and never try it again

Those messages are evil! Failure is a normal, necessary part of learning. We do very few things perfectly the first time—almost everything you’ve learned in your lifetime took more than one attempt.

If you refuse to do things you’re not good at, you won’t learn. But you need to be a lifelong learner to succeed at life.

Grab a board and enjoy the ride

Lifelong learners need coping strategies to support themselves when they’re outside their comfort zone, ie when they’re learning. As you develop speaking and presenting skills, you’ll need coping strategies to deal with Shame Waves.

Effective coping strategies are mental and physical ways to brace for and minimize the impact of Shame Waves. They decrease the number of waves that hit, and the amount of damage done by those that do.

Coping strategies can be simple, like taking a few slow breaths. They can be complex, like retraining habitual thought patterns. Some strategies require equipment while others need only your brain.

You’ll probably develop a few strategies organically. You might also learn from others, adapting their methods to fit you. To get you started, here are some of my favourite coping strategies.

Coping strategies

  1. Plan ahead for Shame Waves. If you know it’s coming you can brace yourself and reduce the impact.
  2. Consider this: Experiencing a Shame Wave is good. It’s your brain trying to keep you safe and help you learn. Your brain’s being mean to you but its intentions are good. Thank your brain and tell it to be nicer.
  3. Expect to be imperfect, expect to make mistakes. Focus on what you learned from this presentation.
  4. Think about your next presentation: What will you do better next time?
  5. Recall other times you’ve presented. Did you feel a Shame Wave then? Why or why not? Was it the same?
  6. Keep a Presentation Journal. Document each presentation, and include a critique—what worked, what didn’t, what you learned.
  7. Force yourself to write down the nasty things you say to yourself. Would you speak that way to anyone?
  8. After writing the nasty things your brain tells you, rewrite them in a positive tone.
  9. In your Presentation Journal, list the Shame Waves you’ve experienced. After a safe distance of time, review them. Are they still as strong? Do they still sting? What did you learn from that presentation? What have you learned since?
  10. Meditate. Do nothing except sit with the shame. Allow it to wash over you. You don’t have to fix it, or act. Just sit and feel shame’s heat. Let it blaze and rage until it burns itself out.
  11. Breathe. A long, deep, slow breath in through your nose, then out through your mouth. Relax. Repeat twice.
  12. Tell someone you trust about the Shame Wave you’re experiencing. Talking can help weaken the power of a Shame Wave. You also might find out you’re not alone.
  13. Practice the 10-10-10 rule: How will you feel about this presentation in 10 hours? 10 weeks? 10 years? Adjust the increments as necessary.
  14. Remind yourself that you are 1 person out of 7 billion on 1 planet out of 8 planets orbiting 1 star out of 300 billion stars in 1 galaxy out of 200 billion galaxies and are entirely insignificant. (This reassures some people. If it freaks you out, don’t use it.)
  15. Give a presentation on Shame Waves. Shining light on shame often helps it evaporate. The research you do will help build your coping strategies; the honesty you present with will encourage others to talk about their own fear, shame and embarrassment; and you will offer help to people, some who don’t even know they need help, or that it’s available.

You’ll find that some of these strategies resonate with you and some don’t. That’s fine. Find what works, and make your own surfboard of strategies. Next time a Shame Wave hits, grab your board and ride the Beach of Learning.

Wear your PFD

Seriously. If you go in a boat, wear your PFD—Personal Flotation Device. Let’s stop needless drownings.

And if you’re presenting, bring your PFD—Presenter’s Failure (at) Delight. Learn to delight at failure. It’s a sign of learning.

Most of us think that speaking and presenting skills are magical superpowers some people are born with. We tell ourselves If I’m not a good presenter now, I never will be. But speaking and presenting are learnable skills, like swimming or cooking. It’s fairly easy to become competent if you practice.

What we think of as natural talent is usually the results of work—lots and lots of work. And a willingness to fail again and again. Failure is necessary to learning.

So if you’re a terrible presenter, terrific! Now’s the time to start learning. And if you’re a good presenter, terrific! Now’s the time to keep improving. It’s easy to create and record your presentations, find a Toastmasters or similar group, or start a presentation practice group at work.


Epilogue: This article is late. I missed my deadline, and even considered abandoning it completely. I struggled for ages. At one point I was convinced that the idea sucked, every sentence was poorly written, and I should actually just give up writing. Shame Waves were pounding on the beach of my writing.

From experience with thousands of clients and students I knew it was Shame Waves, but for a while, I fell for it. Funny—or rather, scary—how sneaky and resilient Shame Waves can be.

So expect the surf, create a safe and durable surfboard of strategies, and ride those waves to the Beach of Expertise. Stay safe!


Lucinda Atwood is a master teacher and coach with over twenty years of experience. She works with emerging and established leaders to develop their strengths, skills and the confidence to lead in alignment with their values. Through inspiration, coaching and practical exercises, Lucinda teaches her clients how to contribute fully and effectively while living their best lives.
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