How Richard Branson got me to think differently about fear

How Richard Branson got me to think differently about fear

I stood side stage at the Ace Hotel’s theater in downtown Los Angeles. Peering out, I saw hundreds of reporters and attendees staring up at a man who had made billions disrupting the music and airline industries, bought tropical islands, crossed both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in a hot air balloon, gone to outer space, founded over 100 companies, and generously gave back while doing all of that. A rebel who rose to the top without a fancy degree or inheritance, just big dreams and the gumption to go after them. Someone who I aspired to be.

Sir Richard Branson. 

As I took in the enormity of this moment, my hero looked toward me waiting in the wings and said, “And welcome Bridget Hilton, a truly inspiring woman who really is making business an adventure.” I walked across the gorgeous stage to roars of clapping and cameras flashing. Several of my friends beamed up at me from the audience and looked on in admiration as I sat down next to my grinning idol for a fireside chat. 

It was the wet dream of any entrepreneur. 

There was only one problem. A big one.

I was absolutely terrified of public speaking. When I was a kid and we had to take turns reading from the textbook in class, I used to count the number of students before me to skip ahead and practice what I'd need to read. In elementary school, I’d play roles such as “tree” in the school play to avoid having any lines. I dreaded even going to the front of the classroom to sharpen a pencil. In my first office job, I never got up the nerve to speak in a meeting—and when forced, my face turned beet red. I once had to present a music video to a big group of colleagues and nearly had a panic attack the night before. As an entrepreneur, sometimes conferences or companies would ask me to come speak, and every single time, I’d make up an excuse for why I couldn’t go. Once, I even faked a death in the family to get out of an event.

Turns out I wasn’t alone. Glossophobia, or a fear of public speaking, is believed to affect up to 75 percent of the population. Several studies show that public speaking is the number one fear, even over death (and spiders!). Yikes.

And yet five years prior, when LSTN was still running out of my dining room, Joe and I went through the Treasure Map exercise for the first time. An item on my list? Have a beer with Sir Richard Branson—a dream that seemed so audacious at the time that I laughed as I wrote it down. I didn’t even consider how I’d react if it actually happened. 

So, even though it had made my palms sweat and my heart drop when I was invited to speak there, I said yes. He was my hero, after all. I had to overcome my fear to make this happen.

Thankfully, the moderator had sent me a list of questions ahead of time. What a relief. I stayed up all night, memorized them all, and prepared slam dunk answers and funny anecdotes in front of my mirror. That small comfort was probably the only reason I managed to actually get my ass on stage.

But the moderator must have lost her notes, or maybe she had a secret vendetta against me, because she didn’t ask a single question I had prepared for. I totally bombed and drew blanks, my heart leaping out of my chest the whole time. Cue the cold sweats. I basically blacked out.

At least, that’s what I thought was happening—no one else seemed to notice anything unusual. In fact, I’m pretty sure no one even cared about what I had to say at all. Richard said incredibly kind things, the crowd was charmed by his charisma, and I got to live out a dream. 

Afterward, I did end up getting that beer with him (several, actually, judging from the photos from that night). We bonded over our shared experiences of giving hearing to those in need, a cause he was also passionate about. I confessed that I was terrified during the whole event, and I was shocked when he told me he was terrified of public speaking, too. But he loved that it helped others learn from his journey and mistakes along the way, so instead of doing rehearsed speeches that added pressure, he now just speaks from the heart and imagines that he’s having a chat with a friend instead of a giant room. 

I thought about all the times I’d had opportunities to speak at events and the voice in my head said, “You don’t deserve this,” or, “You don’t really want to do this,” or, “You can’t do this.” I had given that voice free rein, allowing it to convince me to give up on the idea of speaking altogether. I felt like I was always on the edge of being exposed as a fraud. After speaking with Sir Richard, I realized the voice in my head had been wrong.

To hear that someone insanely accomplished felt that way gave me hope for myself. It wasn’t just beginners like me. I could remember that for the next time I felt nervous on stage—that we’re all human. And it would be okay.

At the afterparty later that evening, members of the crowd came up and told me they were inspired by the story of LSTN, and that they had spent the last few hours thinking of what they could do to help others. One attendee told me they had already set up a meeting at their company headquarters to brainstorm how to integrate social good into their business. Another said they made plans to take their kids to volunteer at a shelter that upcoming weekend. It was the first time I wondered if maybe I should do this more often—it seemed to be resonating with people. 

Until then, I had thought my impact would be purely through the act of giving hearing. I had never considered that I could amplify my impact by simply speaking about those experiences. If I could be deeply present and share these stories with a room, it could potentially lead to others giving in ways they hadn’t considered before. In a way, it seemed selfish to let my anxiety get in the way of a possible domino effect. 

This was a crossroads—I could go for something big and do something bigger than myself, or I could retreat into my fear. 

When I thought about it that way, the right choice was clear. My lifelong phobia had to go. So, I put together a plan and took the first baby steps. I put goals on the calendar and visualized speaking in front of thousands of people. I started outlining a keynote speech. I downloaded an app that helped me with pace and my “umms” and “uhhs.” I made my accountability buddies read and listen to my talk. I filmed myself speaking and reviewed the videos (terribly painful). I gave my speech to a wall while blasting metal music to distract me. I still regularly walk down the beach while reciting it out loud (and get a lot of concerned looks thrown my way). 

As I became more serious about it, I hired a brutally honest coach to tell me what was and wasn’t working. I joined a community of speakers called ImpactEleven who gave me a safe space to voice my highs and lows along the journey. All of these gave me the confidence to push past my fear. Now, just a few years later, speaking is my passion and livelihood. The cave I feared to enter held the treasure I was seeking.

I bet the same is true for you. What are you afraid to do? What makes you so uncomfortable that you avoid it? Maybe you know you’re afraid, or maybe you make up other explanations: you’re bad at it, or you don’t deserve it, or it isn’t worth the effort. Those little lies soothe the ego, but the fear they mask is still there, holding you back.

We need to think—and act—differently about fear. You’ll see that it can actually be a guide to follow, not a monster to avoid like the plague. It can lead you to bigger, better, more meaningful experiences that shape your life in the best way.