Today, I interview Brian Wagstaff whose first experience with speaking anxiety came during his childhood. When asked to make a phone call for his mother, the call ended in embarrassment. From that point forward, Brian hesitated to speak up in social situations for fear of experiencing another embarrassing situation.
As a teenager, he had a wardrobe mishap and ended up feeling quite humiliated about it, which didn’t help. And again during those years, he experienced an unnerving band class error (not even his own!) which gave him stage fright in the most literal sense.
Eventually after these experiences, Brian came to the realization that while he felt awful and wanted to be invisible, it probably wasn’t still as big a deal to those who were in the position to criticize. We so often obsess over our own faults and mistakes that we don’t realize that we’re the only person obsessing over them.
Brian now has the habit of asking two very important questions when these feelings come up. Today, he works with others as a coach, helping them navigate their own fear and self-doubt. He is now the owner of the Public Speakers Association!
Watch the episode:
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Transcript of Interview
Find Your Voice, Change Your Life Podcast
Podcast Host: Dr. Doreen Downing
Free Guide to Fearless Speaking: Doreen7steps.com
“Episode #37 Brian Wagstaff
“Change the Story You’re Telling About Yourself”
(00:36) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Hi, I’m Dr. Doreen Downing. And I’m a psychologist and host of the Find Your Voice, Change Your Life podcast. And today, like most of the days that I do host the podcast here, I’ll be interviewing someone who admittedly has struggled with speaking anxiety, and perhaps has some stories that he will share with you. And in those stories, that’s where you the listener begins to say, “Wow, that person understands me, I’ve been there.” And these guests that I invite have had a journey to find their voice. And so that is meant to inspire you also. So today I’ll be interviewing Brian Wagstaff. And let me tell you just a little bit about him. He sent me some things I can report about. Since leaving a job in the corporate world with Boeing Commercial Airplanes 17 years ago, Brian has owned a number of businesses and has been a real estate investor. He has been involved in five different network marketing companies, and through all of that he has hired numerous coaches to help him in his journey. And somewhere along the line, one of them convinced him that he needed to become a coach as well. Yay, I can’t wait to hear about that. That idea scared him, of course. And he spent two years as a real estate agent to figure out that he hated being an agent, and that his calling truly was to help people and an opportunity to buy the Public Speakers Association was presented to him, and he jumped at the chance to develop his speaking abilities, as well as spread his message. And, Brian, welcome to the podcast today. And we’re looking forward to you sharing your journey and your message.
(02:39) Brian Wagstaff:
Oh, well, thanks, Doreen, for having me. And it was fun listening to that introduction. I mean, it’s weird coming from the other side and, and hearing about yourself, and it’s like, wow, that’s that’s a pretty neat introduction.
(02:55) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Yeah, well, you have had a life and you’ve had lots of lives, it sounds like with several, like 17 years in a corporation, and then also just venturing out on your own and then becoming a coach. So, you’ve had a lot of mileage to learn. And yeah, that’s what we’re here today. So, we’re starting with anxiety, perhaps, that somehow you had recognized as speaking up in public. And so, if you can share some stories or something about your memory of what it was like to be younger, before you hit the corporate world, I guess, and also, your coaching and your public speaking business. Way back when, what would you say are some of the earliest memories you have about your speaking anxiety?
(03:52) Brian Wagstaff:
Well, I’ve done a lot of it. Like I said, I’ve done a lot of network marketing. And I was a real estate agent for a while. And it seemed like all of those people or all those different jobs they wanted– I shouldn’t say jobs– or businesses wanted me to talk to people on the phone and cold call. And I found out that I have a lot of call anxiety. So, this isn’t necessarily related to being on stage or public speaking. But I still, I still think that it applies because I think a lot of the reluctance for calling, making calls is very similar to being on stage. But in this process, I was meeting with a coach, and I learned or I figured out that my call anxiety came from when I was six or seven years old. And what happened was my mom told me that I needed to call a lady in our church about something about church, Sunday school or whatever it was. I’m not exactly, sure. But I needed to call this lady who I didn’t know very well. And to me, looking back now six or seven years old, and, you know, you have to make a call, I don’t know if we can get 14-year-olds, 15-year-olds to make calls. You know, they’re so busy texting. But I mean, I wasn’t into texting because it wasn’t around back then. But my mom wanted me to be able to talk on the phone. And I appreciate that she wanted to teach that to me. But anyway, so I was making this call. And I didn’t know what to say. And she said, “Oh, well just ask for, you know, if their mother is there.” And so, I made the call, and someone, a male voice, got on the phone and answered. And I said, “Is your mother there?” And by how deep his voice was, I knew that I had made a mistake. And he said, “Oh, well, I haven’t lived with my mother for 15 years,” or whatever it was, I don’t remember. And, and then and he laughed. And that just crushed me because he laughed at what I said, and I was like, oh, no, I made a mistake. That was horrible. Oh, I never want to make calls again. And after that I had a really hard time calling someone unless I knew exactly what to say when the person picked up. But it was also the fear of not knowing who picked up that that caused a lot of a lot of anxiety. So anyway, the coach that was coaching me on this, he said, “Well, is it possible that that man laughed, because it was so cute, that you were so cute?” And that thought had never entered my mind until he brought that up. But I want to go on to another story. And it does that for
(06:56) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Before you do, I just want to interject here because your story so far in– I’ve done quite a few podcasts. I haven’t heard this one about it being call anxiety. And it’s not about getting up and speaking to a whole roomful of people. It’s not even about being at a meeting and raising your hand. It’s about making a phone call. And that’s where anxiety was for you as an adult, and when you traced it back, you remember something that got lodged in your brain. And that’s what happens. I think for, you know, when we look back on our childhoods, that there’s, there’s an association: phone with fright, or with humiliation, embarrassment, whatever it was for you. And it gets lodged in our brain deep in our brain that our conscious mind might not even remember. So, I’m glad you shared that. I’m glad that number one, you shared, it was an early memory. And a lot of a lot of people listening might was saying, well, that’s no big deal. But it was in for a little six-year-old boy who’s maybe got already some anxiety or nervousness or discomfort about engaging with people. So, thank you for sharing that
(08:18) Brian Wagstaff:
Especially people that I don’t know. So, I think it’s just talking to people that I don’t know, in general. You know, once I get to know them, I think it’s much easier.
(08:28) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Can I ask something?
(08:30) Brian Wagstaff:
(08:32) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Because you have pointed to that a couple times now—“people you don’t know”. What do you think is that about, the people that you don’t know?
(08:41) Brian Wagstaff:
It’s probably not knowing what they’re going to ask or not knowing how I should respond. Wanting to have the right answers or not wanting to look foolish in front of the anybody, whether I know them or not. But I think more often than not, if I don’t know them, and I’m just meeting them, and you know, first impressions are so important. Oh, if I don’t make a good impression, then they might not be my friend. They might not like me.
(09:16) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Oh, that’s really– I’m glad you pointed to a couple of possibilities. Because I think that is something that that anxiety about going into an unknown. In fact, our conversation is a little bit unknown. You know, it’s not scripted. We’re just having a conversation. And I’m asking you a question about something and it’s not like you have a prepared answer. So, I appreciate you thinking out loud about well, what could be so scary about encountering people that you don’t know and I think it’s, I think it might be something kind of in that hind brain you know, we don’t know who this– you know, like the jungle. You know, we don’t know who this animal is in front of us. It’s human but we don’t know what they’re going to think of us, or how do we need to be– we have to make a lot of assessments. So, thanks.
(10:08) Brian Wagstaff:
But if we hadn’t had a one to one, Zoom one to one beforehand and I talked to you before, this would have been much harder for me to do. And I because you– in that one to one, you put me at ease. I was like, oh, okay, I can relax. Dr. Doreen is great. And she makes you feel good. So I’m not nervous talking to you.
(10:35) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Wonderful. I appreciate that. Well, you said you had another story. Let’s go!
(10:41) Brian Wagstaff:
Yes. So, when I was 14 years old, I was excited because I was able to attend a youth conference for my church. You had to be 14 or older, and I just barely turned 14. And so, I went to this youth conference where there was about 500 Kids, or there was a gym full of 500 or so adults and teenagers. And we were having a presentation. And we were supposed to dress nice. We didn’t have to wear like a suit and tie. But we needed to dress nice. And so, I found a nice shirt, a polo shirt, and then a pair of slacks. And I didn’t want to wear the shoes that I would wear on Sunday with my suit. So, I was like, Okay, I want to wear tennis shoes. And so, I was looking through my shoes. And I’d just bought a pair of football shoes for the upcoming season. They had never been worn. And I was excited about football. So I was like, I think I should wear these football shoes with my nice pants and a nice shirt. And I asked my sister what she thought. And she said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I think that’s fine. Go ahead.” And my mom didn’t say anything, which was surprising, because usually she would say, “oh, no, you have to wear something nicer than that, those shoes don’t go with this outfit.” So, I’m sitting in the gym, and I’m on the aisle and the speaker up on the stage. He’s asking for a volunteer to come up on stage. And no one volunteered. Of course, I mean, we’re all teenagers, no one’s gonna volunteer to go up there. And he points at at me and says, “Hey, you in the white shoes, come on up here.” And I was like, oh, I should have never worn those white shoes. If I was wearing black shoes, he would have never noticed me. And so I got up on stage. And he had a blackboard there. And he said, “I want you to write all of your greatest strengths, your best attributes, you know, all the good things about you, I want you to write those all on the board right now.” And I said, I thought, well, I can’t do that. I can’t write all those things. You know, that would be that would be boasting. And so, he pushed me a little bit more, “come on, come on, go ahead and write them all.” And, and I was like, “no, no, I won’t do it.” And he said, “why won’t you do it?” And I said, “because I don’t want to look like I’m boasting.” And I don’t remember what happened after that. But eventually, I got off the stage. And I didn’t write anything on the board. So, I didn’t have to, he let me go. But I was humiliated. Well, I was. And I was just so mad that he brought me up there. And I was not knowing what I was supposed to do. Like, what answer did he want? Was that the answer he was looking for? I don’t know. Was he trying to embarrass me? Was he trying to? Was he trying to get me to put those things up there so that everyone can look at them? I don’t know. But at that time, I thought, okay, I’ll never wear white shoes with dark pants. And I thought, I never want to be up on stage being asked questions where I don’t know the answer to them.
(13:59) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Well, there you go again, it’s so similar to the other story about being thrust into a situation that you’re totally unprepared for. And you have no idea what’s being asked of you. And even the answering feels like you can’t even take a risk answering the question because it might be wrong or…
(14:25) Brian Wagstaff:
Yeah, no matter what I did. I could be wrong.
(14:28) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Yes, yeah. No matter what.
(14:31) Brian Wagstaff:
I can’t, I can’t win here. So, I’m not going to do it.
(14:35) Dr. Doreen Downing:
And so, on one hand I’m thinking well, good, brave you for just saying no. You’re right. It’s kind of like that coach you talked about who said, “Well, could it be that the man laughed because it was cute.” Well, I’m acknowledging you for saying, “I’m not gonna play this game. I it doesn’t feel good to me. It’s uncomfortable. I’m going to leave the stage.” So I guess that, you know, knowing what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. But on the other hand, what we’re talking about are incidences that felt like it rattled your body in such a way that you’ve you carried anxiety with you forward into being an adult.
(15:22) Brian Wagstaff:
(15:25) Dr. Doreen Downing:
You said there was a third story?
(15:26) Brian Wagstaff:
Yes, yeah. So not much later, while I was still 14, I was in a junior high band concert. And the way that the way the music was written, they put in a– I played trombone. And so, there was music written for baritones, and they put it in there, like, the trombones will play this, unless there is a baritone in the band, then the baritone would play it. And, and so we were practicing it, and sometimes the trombones, we would play it because we liked it. It was it was the fun part of the music. So, we would play it with the baritone. And then finally, the day before the concert, our band director, he said, “Okay, trombones, you don’t play, we’re just going to have the– there are two baritones, so we’re going to have the baritones play it. And you guys won’t play.” So then during the concert, we get to that point in the music, and I stopped playing, and the other four trombones, they kept playing, and they played the part that the band director said not to, to let just the baritones play. And so, I was super embarrassed. I was the only one sitting there not playing out of all the other trombones. And I didn’t know what to do. I thought, Well, should I start playing? Should I just pick up my horn and start playing this other part and try and figure out where they are? And then I just said, no, I can’t do that. I’m just gonna not play. And then after the concert was over, I said to my friends, “Hey, what happened?” And they’re like, “oh, yeah, yeah, we decided to play it. We thought it’d be fun.” And the band director, I don’t think ever said anything to us, like, “Hey, you guys weren’t supposed to do that.” But in my view, everyone in the entire audience was looking at me, like, why aren’t you playing you’re supposed to be playing? So, I was super embarrassed. And I had some other friends that were there at the concert. And I talked to them later and said, “Oh, did you see me? Did you see me do that? Oh, it was horrible.”
(17:44) Dr. Doreen Downing:
And so, what was their answer? Did they say they did notice that you stood out?
(17:50) Brian Wagstaff:
I don’t even remember.
(17:51) Dr. Doreen Downing:
I doubt it, of course. But I think I think what you’re saying also shows us that you may– if we asked 100 people who are listening, watching, and not a one said they never noticed you, it still matters most of what you were feeling. So, you know, 100 people telling you that they didn’t notice would not convince you to feel like you had done something that was embarrassing, because that embarrassment was in the moment for you. And they’re trying to say, “Oh, don’t be embarrassed,” but you’re saying, “I was”, so I think that’s an important point that, you know, other people could try and soothe your feelings. But if you felt that there’s truth and feeling like I’m screwing up here, and I don’t know, just that kind of fright of, ooh, I don’t know what I should do. Should I pick it up? Should I play? Should I? You know, should I pretend I’m playing? Yeah, it’s those moments of being kind of ‘caught’ I guess and that’s seems to be the theme of the three stories that you’re telling me is, you know, that whole ‘deer in the headlights’ moment that people talk about where you’re just trapped. Stuck all of a sudden, you know, the bright lights are on you. And you can’t escape. That’s what it feels like, you can’t escape.
(19:25) Brian Wagstaff:
Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Yeah, and there’s– I don’t know how many people were there at that concert. There were, I don’t know, a couple hundred, three hundred, I don’t know. But it felt like everyone was watching me.
(19:39) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Yeah, and so we can say, “of course not, they weren’t,” however, what you’re left with and what people who have fright or have anything close to a traumatic moment in their life, what’s left is the sensation, the physical sensation of being in the middle of the spotlight trapped and you can’t get away from it. And that sensation is what lingers in our bodies and in our brains, and I think even at a cellular level. So here you are, you know, you’ve got these a number of incidences that all seem to add up to the same thing of like, I want out of here, but I can’t get out of here. And I don’t know what to do. And but somewhere along the line now we can talk about– well, so what was your journey? I know you’ve had coaching? And how have you been working on overcoming this fright that landed in your body?
(20:47) Brian Wagstaff:
Well, I think that, number one, the biggest thing is, for me to be able to start looking back at these stories and finding them, finding them from my past and say, Oh, this is, this is where this came from. Because I hadn’t really thought about those stories until I had coaches asked me about it. And in fact, the one about the band concert, I didn’t even remember until, I don’t know, half an hour before we started recording. All of a sudden, it came to me. It was like, oh, that was another time where you were on the stage. And you wanted to be invisible.
(21:30) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Oh, that phrase you just used is so powerful. I just felt it run through my body. You know, you wanted to be invisible. Yeah, that seems to be the core of what you’re talking about, and I bet anybody who’s listening right now is probably going yeah, they felt that wanting to be invisible. And that, yeah, that’s true. Here you are, and you can’t hide. That was what I was beginning to really sense is that you can’t hide. And yet you want to be invisible. And yet you’re standing out like a sore thumb. So, the connecting the dots, and acknowledging that there are some routes to anxiety feels like what you’re saying has been useful for you to understand yourself, and to gain a deeper awareness, deeper insight on some of the causes of what might still be lingering. And so, when you do do this, when you do start gathering these moments and making the links and getting the “Aha!”s, how does that help currently?
(22:50) Brian Wagstaff:
Okay, well, I think that there’s two important questions that I’ve had to ask myself after coming to these realizations or remembering these stories of things that happened. So, the first one is, what story am I telling myself about the event that happened? What’s the story in my mind? You know, because the story was, 500 people are looking at me, or, 300 people, or whatever it is, you know, all of these people are looking at me, and they’re thinking about it, even when the concert was over. You know, in my mind, those people are still thinking, “Oh, what a great concert. Except for that one boy who didn’t play his trombone while all the other trombones were playing.” You know, that’s the story that’s going through my mind. All of my friends remember it, all of the– maybe the parents of the other kids are disappointed, “oh, that concert was terrible, because of this one boy that stood out.” Those are the stories that go through– were going through my head, so it’s, so what is the story that you’re telling yourself? And then what meaning are you putting on that? You know, what’s the meaning from that? You know, I guess the meaning was, oh, you’re not a good musician, or, oh, you’re not meant to perform in front of people. Oh, you’re not meant to be on the stage. Those are the kinds of things that I think are conclusions that I jumped to. So, I’m learning that you can’t change your past, but you can change the story that you’re telling about yourself.
(24:32) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Say that one more time. That’s powerful.
(24:35) Brian Wagstaff:
You can’t change the past, but you can change the story that you’re telling yourself. Yeah, change the story and change the meaning of the story, the meaning of, okay, what meaning are you taking from that event?
(24:49) Dr. Doreen Downing:
That’s wonderful. So, the looking at the story that you’re telling, so it’s first finding those events, then it’s looking at what story you’re telling about that event, and then it’s a well, what meaning does that mean? What does that mean for you? Does that mean that you’re less than human? Does that mean you’re not good at whatever? And then so that means we must tell different stories. Is that what you’re getting to Brian?
(25:17) Brian Wagstaff:
Yes. Yeah. You know, I had a coach that told me, “you can tell yourself whatever story you want, so you might as well make it a good one.”
(25:26) Dr. Doreen Downing:
I like that. There’s so many times today, I want you to repeat that. Say that again.
(25:32) Brian Wagstaff:
There are so many stories you can be telling yourself, so you might as well make it a good one.
(25:37) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Might as well make it a good one. Well, I hope everybody heard that.
(25:41) Brian Wagstaff:
So, I guess it’s okay to embellish or make it better than it really was? Or, you know, I don’t know. So that phone call when I was six years old. I could… now I can look back and say, Oh, I must have been so cute. I must have been the cutest kid saying the cutest things. I must have been adorable. And I mean, I know, like my kids when I would laugh because they’re cute, they would say, “what, what did I do?” And then we’d say “No, nothing. You didn’t do anything. It’s just that you’re so cute.” So I don’t know, I can change that around in my head and say, oh, yeah, I can talk to people on the phone, because look at how cute I am. Or look at how cute I was. Or look at how funny I am or…
(26:28) Dr. Doreen Downing:
And then what I did with the second story about your being up on stage, I said that was pretty bold for you to refuse to play his game. So, what about this third one that you’ve just told, what would be a different way of telling that story about being in the band?
(26:46) Brian Wagstaff:
Um, let me see. I was coming up with a new story for that. And the only story that I could come up with was, oh, well, I had a different part than the rest of those trombones. There’s a first trombone, a second trombone, and a third trombone. And sometimes not all three parts are playing at the same time. So, I could just… “yeah, yeah, I was playing third trombone. And the other guys were playing first and second. So the third trombones, they had the, you know, eight measures off,” or whatever it is.
(27:23) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Great. Well, I love having had this conversation with you today, and especially around some of the wisdom messages that you’ve given about stories and meaning and “tell a good story.” Because we’re telling stories all the time anyway. So, make it a good one, that that’s what I’m walking away with. Anything else, since we’re coming to the end, that you want to offer the listeners about overcoming speaking anxiety and finding your voice?
(27:56) Brian Wagstaff:
Well, this all reminds me of how I’ve spent a lot of my life wanting to or worrying about what other people think of me. And it was my coach that wanted me to become a coach. She’s the one that pointed out to me, “you worry way too much about what other people think.” And that never occurred to me that that was a bad thing. And I, you know, I thought, Oh, well, shouldn’t I care what my mom and dad think should not care what my kids think of me what? And she’s like, “No, it isn’t important what they think.” And it reminds me of a quote that I’ve recently heard, and that is “you can’t change a– no, sorry. That was that was the other one that I like, the other quote. This quote is, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” And that’s from Eleanor Roosevelt.
(28:54) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Well, that makes me laugh.
(28:56) Brian Wagstaff:
Well, yeah, I mean, those people in those auditoriums or those gyms that I thought were all watching me, and laughing, you know, a minute after I was gone, they didn’t remember any of that. They weren’t thinking about it. I was thinking about it for a couple of days, you know? And I remember it now.
(29:19) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Yes. That’s what I was just gonna point that out that today, you found that to talk about and share with us and, wonderful. Well, I hate to end because I feel like there’s so much more stories and wisdom that you have to offer. So, let’s continue this conversation at some point because it feels like what you’re doing nowadays is really important. So how do people find you, Brian?
(29:47) Brian Wagstaff:
Well, they can find me at the Public Speakers Association website. So PUBLICSPEAKERSASSOCIATION.COM.
(29:57) Dr. Doreen Downing:
And you’re owning that business now and you’re welcoming speakers in, is that what you’re doing?
(30:05) Brian Wagstaff:
Yes. Uh huh.
(30:07) Dr. Doreen Downing:
And in some ways, I think you’re helping others find their voice by giving them a platform to come and speak. I know you gave me that one day. So, thank you.
(30:06) Brian Wagstaff:
Oh, you’re welcome.
(30;18) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Well, that’s the end of our podcast for today. And I want to thank all the listeners for having gone to Apple Podcasts and write these fabulous reviews that you’ve been doing, as well as giving five stars to this podcast, and your comments about how people show up and how they’re real, and they’re authentic, and they tell stories that have depth and are the people like today, thank you, Brian for being vulnerable and unzipping and self-disclosing some moments that are embarrassing for you. And also, having shown us today, how to go get through, what a journey to go back and find those moments, but also, what a process you can do to empower yourself today by retelling stories so that they are good ones for you, that they make you stronger. Thank you very much, Brian.
(31:20) Brian Wagstaff:
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Also listen on…
Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speaking: doreen7steps.com.
Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speaking: doreen7steps.com.