Speech Doctor

October 30, 2014

Nancy Buffington, a public speaking coach, helps people find confidence, and themselves, behind the podium.

story by Laura Wolstenholme

photography by John Webster

Nancy Buffington is Boise’s only female public speaking coach, and the idea for her business, Boise SpeakWell, came to her rather unexpectedly. We met at a Boise Starbucks, where I learned how Buffington helped people overcome their dread of public speaking. Not long ago, while teaching at Stanford University as a rhetoric and writing professor, she informed her students that a new class, Oral Communication, had been introduced into the curriculum. Buffington’s English major students were not happy—one of them broke into tears.

Yet these same students experienced a paradigm shift after only a few months in the new class, Buffington observed. They were empowered by their new public speaking skills, and their transformation placed an idea in her mind: coaching and tutoring people to find confidence behind the podium. Three years ago, Buffington implemented her brainstorm, and Boise SpeakWell was born.

If many of us cower before the podium, Buffington firmly sees it as an opportunity for personal change. The problem, Buffington says, is “many people suffer from anxiety and lack of confidence, and don’t understand the principles of public speaking.” She goes on, “I’ve seen people go from warm to wood once they are behind a podium.”

To help a person escape that dynamic, Buffington tailors a unique approach for each client.  While building confidence and speaking skills are certainly vital, Buffington says a “clarity about who they are, and how to maintain that on stage” is also essential for any client’s success. Depending on the type of speech, Buffington helps them choose what aspect of their personality they want to project on stage. Is it a board meeting the client needs to lead? Then what are the client’s goals and who are the audience? What sense of self does the client want to project? The answers bring clients focus and direction to their presence on stage.

When coaching her clients, Buffington uses a variety of tactics including improving self-talk, physical exercises, and filming. Whether a PowerPoint presentation or a webinar, Buffington stresses, “The speech is a meeting of you and the audience. The more you connect, the more successful the speech.”

Even impromptu speaking can be addressed, Buffington told me. Many clients ask for help with interviews, and strategies such as role-playing, developing four or five set answer strategies, and lots of practice fielding questions can make a big difference.

Buffington deeply empathizes with her clients because of her own experience with debilitating stage fright. Beginning in sixth grade until well into graduate school, where she was earning her doctorate, Buffington says she “went silent,” not once voluntarily speaking out in class. A move to a new school with unfamiliar, sometimes hostile peers, made her feel keeping quiet was her best policy. Later, as a professor teaching public speaking, she mastered the techniques she had developed for her class. Coaching is so important to her, Buffington told me, because she wants to give clients hope that they too can break out of their fear.

Business advice led her to write a children’s book that addresses stage fright, Ruby Lee and the VERY BIG DEAL, published in 2013 by Tru Publishing of Boise. In her book, the heroine Ruby must give a public speech and receives advice from her eccentric Aunt Alice. An intriguing plot, delightful characters, and beautiful illustrations underscore real help for giving a speech, useful to any age group. Her second children’s book, also published by Tru Publishing, will be released this December. Entitled “A Christmas Peace,” it’s based on the true story of how German and American soldiers accidently found shelter together during the Battle of the Bulge. Buffington says the book asks, “How can we best communicate and find peace in this world?”

None of this would have been possible, Buffington says, if she had not moved back to Boise, where she grew up and graduated from Boise High School in the 80’s. After 20 years as an English professor, she is very happy to be back. Through word of mouth and excellent advice from her business mentors, Buffington has been able to build Boise SpeakWell into a successful local business and service to all who struggle with public speaking.

What is Buffington’s parting advice to any of us staring down a speech on the horizon? She says, “Don’t try to be perfect; being perfect is the enemy of being great. Be human, be real,” Buffington advises, “and connect with your audience.”

For more information on Boise SpeakWell, visit their website at www.boisespeakwell.com.