Rediscover Your Authentic Voice: Leadership Lessons from Trauma-Training and the Arts

By: Noah Drew

We are born great communicators. As young children, most of us were expressive, authentic, and creative. So why are so many adults stressed out, stiff, and uninspiring when it’s time to stand up and speak, especially at work? What can we do to relearn the freedom we had as children?

These questions have fascinated me for years. I explored them throughout my undergraduate degrees in theatre, English literature, and music composition, in my master’s degree in acting, and later in my training to become a certified teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework


The Impact of Stress and Trauma on Communication

Throughout my studies and decades of work as a theatre professional, I’ve deepened my understanding of the connections between creativity, embodiment, and authentic expression. I’m obsessed with how our breathing, physical sensations and movements, voices, impulses, and thoughts all work in coordination to make meaningful, memorable impacts on audiences.

This understanding greatly shapes my approach to leadership communication as a coach with The Humphrey Group. However, even with my background, and hundreds of coaching engagements under my belt, there are some clients whom I find struggle more than others. Certain people seem to respond to the stress of being in front of an important audience with excessive nervousness, tension, or even dissociation (e.g., saying, “it’s all a blur.”).

To better understand why this happens, I studied techniques from somatic psychotherapy, particularly Somatic Experiencing. Developed by Dr. Peter Levine, this approach helped me understand how our bodies process stress and trauma.

As children, we express ourselves freely without much fear of external judgment. However, as we grow into adults, our experiences condition us and we begin to internalize fears of judgment and failure.

This is in large part because our nervous systems react to the possibility of social rejection as a real threat. Throughout most of human evolutionary history, being ejected from the tribe would have almost certainly meant death. Even today, our bodies don’t always distinguish between the experience of being chased by a bear and making an important presentation to the board. It’s no wonder so many people harbor an innate fear of showing up as their true selves.


Practical Techniques to Manage Stress and Enhance Communication

So, how can you manage the very real, physical threat-response you may experience when facing an important audience, and still show up as an effective, authentic leader? There are a number of practical techniques you can use.

First, recognize that what is happening in your body is happening – whether you like it or not. By that I mean, trying to ignore it or mask it isn’t the solution because you can’t just will away what’s hard-wired into your innate survival systems. Instead, it’s critical you tend to your body. You can do this through breathing exercises, taking a walk, exercising or stretching, or even just cleaning. Get your body in motion.

Second, it can help greatly to talk with someone you like and trust. This is because re-establishing a sense of social safety diffuses the threat-response processes firing in your nervous system. Find a receptive audience for a good chat, joke, or story, and feel yourself relax into being heard, understood, and accepted.

Third, recognize that the experience of fear comes in waves, and learn to welcome your nerves as they happen. Really! What you resist persists. Saying yes to what’s happening, even if it’s uncomfortable, will help your system move through the sensations faster than trying to fight them off. Believe it or not, it’s even possible to transform nervous energy itself into fuel for vibrant communication. We get nervous because we care, and audiences respond well to speakers that have the courage to show passion for their topic.

Finally, develop a habit of embracing positives and congratulating yourself on successes, both large and small. Too often we fixate on our perceived failures and shortcomings, which feeds the negative voice in our head and increases fearfulness. Instead of allowing yourself to be distracted by unhelpful, negative mental chatter, build your self-encouragement “muscle” so that more of your resources are available to pursue your goals.


Embracing Vulnerability and Continuous Improvement 

So… having read this blog post, you’ve completely transformed your relationship with the stresses of being in front of an audience, right? If only it were that easy! The truth is that becoming a great communicator requires regular practice and training. To develop into a truly inspiring leader, you must consistently embrace vulnerability, skillfully manage physiological responses, and hone practical techniques. Good coaching can be invaluable in this journey, but the ongoing work is ultimately up to you.



To learn more about how personalized coaching can help you become an inspiring leader, check out The Humphrey Group's Leadership Coaching.