Why avoiding public speaking is worse than doing it! It is career-limiting, stressful, and harder than you think.
Verbal communication skills are valued by employers. They consistently rank highly on lists of the top "soft skills". For example, the LinkedIn Learning 2020 Workplace report found that employers ranked "persuasion" as their number two soft skill requirement. And you can’t persuade without good verbal communication skills.
Public speaking is an important sub-set of verbal communication skills. But many people I come across, tell me they actively avoid public speaking.
There is a great story about a child with a fear of public speaking in season five of Rita – a popular Danish Netflix show. It features the kind, quirky, socially awkward headmistress Hjørdis who is also one of the school’s two teachers.
The students have been asked to present to the class on what they have learned about nature in the past week. Hjørdis announces, “We will start with Asta’s presentation of the great spotted woodpecker”. But Asta is not there. Her brother Albert says she had a "tummy ache and stuff" so has stayed home.
After school, Hjørdis questions Asta’s mother. Anette says that she let Asta take the day off because she felt so nervous that morning. Hjørdis tries to explain that it is important for children to learn to convey something to others.
Anette responds, “Is that important to all children? They won’t all become teachers.”
Hjørdis says, “You would be surprised how often people have to present something to others.”
Anette quickly responds, “You would be surprised how often that can be avoided!” She then firmly states, “I won’t put Asta through unnecessary failure."
The scene ends with Hjørdis agreeing she won’t force Asta. However, it turns out that Hjørdis and Anette have different ideas about what they agreed as we will find out in a minute.
Can public speaking be avoided?
Anette is partly right. Many people find ways of avoiding public speaking by avoiding certain career paths or letting others present for them. I have heard of people negotiating with their manager that they don’t have to do any presenting because it is not their strength.
But Hjørdis is also right when she says, “You would be surprised how often people have to present something to others.”
Avoidance might work in the short term but long term it is difficult, stressful, and career limiting.
Imagine you have chosen an IT career believing it to be a backroom job that allows you to avoid presenting. Maybe it starts this way. You interact with others but don’t have to talk to more than one or two people at once. But then you start thinking about career progression. Perhaps you want to take on a client-facing role. Or become a team leader. Or a project manager. These choices will require you to be able to present to small groups at least. You will find it career-limiting to rule out all choices that might require public speaking.
Even if you think you have avoided it, this probably won’t last. You may have a manager who knows you are nervous and gives the presenting job to others. But what happens when your manager leaves and the new manager expects you to take your turn?
Or perhaps you are in a job that involves some presenting but you manage to "get out of it" every time. You feel massive relief when you find an excuse or someone to cover for you. But the anxiety returns when the next "speaking opportunity" heads your way!
I have come across retired people who want to be able to speak at family events but have avoided it their whole lives. A recent example was a woman in her 70s who’s 100-year-old mother became ill and she panicked when she realized that she would have to deliver the eulogy when her mother dies.
The opposite of avoidance is exposure
"Exposure" - the opposite of avoidance - is the key to addressing any fear. Gradual exposure by moving outside of your comfort zone in manageable steps is highly effective.
Let’s go back to the story.
The next day Asta comes to school although half the children in the class are now away with tummy aches! But she runs out of the classroom when Hjørdis asks her to present.
Hjørdis follows her. “What are you scared of?” she asks? “All of it,” replies Asta. After some prodding she says, “That I will forget what to say.” “That I will say something stupid.” “Everyone will look at me."
Hjørdis helps Asta deal with each of these fears by making her a memory hat, a wisdom cane, and an endurance cape. On day three, Asta stands up dressed in this regalia.
“The great spotted woodpecker is common in Denmark. It is black, white, and red. Its special skull means it can hammer away at trees,” she starts bravely.
At this moment, her mother Anette walks in with Albert’s forgotten lunch. She is furious. Although Hjørdis explains that she didn’t force Asta, Anette starts removing the "silly clothes." Asta looks devasted.
Hjørdis asks to speak to Annette in the headmistress’s office.
Anette reveals that she was bullied at school as a fifth-grader after giving a presentation on the Cold War. She mixed up some of her words and later the class made up a song about her that still haunts her. “I just wanted to protect her,” she explains.
In the next scene, Anette is wearing the memory hat, the wisdom cane, and the endurance cloak, presenting alongside Asta. Despite looking terrified she finishes with a smile!
Most students who avoid public speaking at school don’t have a Hjørdis to support them. Many young people slip under the radar and leave school or even university with poor verbal communication skills. Fortunately, these skills can be acquired later.
If you are avoiding public speaking you can learn from Hjørdis, Asta, and Annette. Hjørdis created a safe environment and gave Asta some strategies to manage her nerves. With the right support, Asta was brave enough to "give it a go". And Anette realized that her original instinct to protect Asta was misplaced. She also found that it is never too late to address your fears.
If this sounds familiar I strongly encourage you to stop avoiding public speaking! Join Toastmasters or sign up for a Fear-less public speaking course. Yes, you will experience some short-term stress and anxiety. But you will be well supported. And you will be spared a lifetime of lost opportunity and ongoing stress and anxiety.
Finally, if you have children at school - don’t project your fear onto them. Encourage and support them in acquiring great communication skills.
Written by Catherine Syme
Enjoyed this article? Fear-less is developing an online course that you can do in your own time. It is for people with a fear of public speaking who want to increase their confidence and competence, and who are unable or not ready to attend a public speaking course. It includes videos, training materials, and daily speaking exercises that will help prepare you for speaking to an audience. It will be available in 2021. Please contact us to register your interest.
Over 80% of people who register for a Fear-less public speaking course say that they are actively avoiding situations where they will have to speak to audiences. And nearly 45% say that they have either turned down a promotion or not applied for a job due to their fear of public speaking.
The people who take my courses have identified public speaking as a major fear that is impacting on their career and their life in general. But also, they are people we come across in the workplace every day. They are talented, motivated, set high standards for themselves, are well regarded by their peers and managers, and often hiding a shameful secret.
This article is the first of a two-part series. Part one is written mainly for people who have a fear of public speaking. My aim is for them to recognise the impact it is having on them professionally and how it doesn’t always have to be this way. Part two will be written for managers, Learning and Development professionals, recruiters, and those responsible for workplace wellbeing. It will help them understand how helping people address their fear of public speaking benefits everyone.
It is easy to recognise an “authentic” speaker but unpacking what this really means can be confusing. Public speaking is a performance; so how can you perform and be authentic at the same time?
Although public speaking is a performance, it is not the same as acting. As an actor, you are pretending to be someone else, but as a public speaker you are yourself. In fact, the trick is to come across so naturally that it doesn’t look like you are performing!
But this highlights a problem for inexperienced speakers. The advice to “be yourself’ is not helpful when you are trembling bundle of nerves.
“Be yourself” does not mean for you to stand up and tell everyone how nervous you feel, then waffle on about your topic! You might look “real” but in a raw, uncomfortable way that lacks professional credibility and leaves the audience squirming.
Instead, you need to bring your best self to the stage – you “on form”. A high energy version of yourself. The self that you might bring to a job interview! And it takes much practice to achieve that. Being “real” is not quite enough. An authentic speaker also has confidence and credibility.
Let’s take a look at what an authentic speaker does – and how you can do the same.
Previously I have rejected suggestions to run Fear-less courses online because I was not convinced that it would work effectively. Then Covid19 came along! I had to cancel a course due to start on the first day of lockdown. And I had to decide whether to shut up shop and wait it out, or to try something new! I decided to run a ‘trial’ online course via Zoom and this article is about what I found.
Seven stories of people who once had a crippling fear of public speaking and did something about it!
I am doing something new for this month’s blog article. I want to tell the stories of a seven people who decided that they were no longer going to let their fear of public speaking define them.
Why am I doing this? Most people with a fear of public speaking take years to do anything about it. They wait until the impact on their career or personal lives is so damaging that they have to act. I hope that these stories will encourage people to take action sooner. I hope that people will read these stories, recognise something of themselves, realise that it is possible to move past a crippling fear of public speaking, and find the courage to take action.
These are all true stories (although some names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people behind these stories). I know all these people personally – most but not all are past clients. There is a common theme that you might recognise. Most of these people say they still get nervous and that they are still working on improving their speaking skills. But in all cases they are no longer overwhelmed by fear to the point that it is impacting their lives. They are now able to feel the fear and do it anyway!
How to become a more confident public speaker by moving outside of your comfort zone (and why public speaking courses get results!)
More than half the people who register for Fear-less public speaking courses are actively avoiding public speaking. Some have chosen their career to avoid it. Others have turned down a promotion. Many palm off every speaking ‘opportunity’ to someone else. As well as being highly stressful (it is harder to avoid public speaking than you think) this means that they don’t improve. In fact, the harder they work to avoid it, the greater the fear becomes.
Inconveniently, to get better at public speaking you have to do it! – which means moving outside of your comfort zone. This may seem obvious however there is a bit more too it. You get the best results by moving just outside of your comfort zone. While you will never improve by staying inside your comfort zone, being forced to move too far out of it can also be detrimental. For example, if you were forced to give an important presentation to a large audience with little experience and feeling terrified, the chances are it will go badly. And this will just make you dread public speaking even more.
Have you made a New Year’s resolution to ‘do something’ about your fear of public speaking? That’s fantastic! You won’t regret it. Read this article to find out how to keep this resolution!
You probably felt great (even euphoric!) when you made a decision that 2020 will be the year that you tackle your fear of public speaking. But that feeling might be short lived as you realise you now have to do something….
A New Year’s resolution is usually a promise to yourself to do something about an aspect of your life that you are not satisfied with. Statistics tell us that most of us do not follow through New Year’s resolutions. However, by staying focused and being aware of three traps, you can fulfil your promise to yourself.
Thinking about your purpose rather than your performance when public speaking is the key to managing your nerves but it doesn’t come naturally.
When you are standing in front of an audience it is very easy to think that it is all about you. And that makes you anxious because you feel as if you are being judged. However, it is more than likely that the audience is paying very little attention to you personally! Hopefully they are listening to and processing what you have to say. But they are probably thinking about dozens of other things as well, such as what they need to do next, how long the talk is going to last, and the email they forget to send…
Of course, if you are amazingly good or incredibly bad, they will form some judgements about you as well, but you are not their focus. For each individual member of the audience it is very much about them, not you.
I recently had a client who was worried about speaking at his daughter’s 21st. I reminded him that at a 21st function people are focused on his daughter, not him. All they expect from him is to hear how much he cares about his daughter and a couple of entertaining stories. To anyone else this is obvious but many of us would react the same way as my client. It is very easy to slip into ‘what will they think of me?’ rather than ‘how can I best acknowledge my daughter?’
Thinking about your purpose rather than your performance is a powerful concept for three reasons.
Everyone wants to look confident when they are presenting. We also want to feel confident – but most people can handle feeling a bit nervous as long as they can hide it from others!
This in itself is interesting and I touched on it in a previous blog article (“Public speaking and the shame of looking nervous”). But this article is about how you can employ some techniques to look confident even if you don’t initially feel it. Or to put it another way, how to ‘fake it until you feel it.’
Before we look at the five tips there is some good news. You probably already look more confident than you feel. Surveys indicate that over 70% of people have some level of fear of public speaking. But most people look reasonably confident when they speak. So how can this be? Either fewer than 30% of the people are doing all the talking (unlikely) or most people don’t show their nerves (more likely).
Watching a video of yourself presenting can help reassure you that your nervousness is not on full display. You may feel your stomach churning, your palms sweating, your heart pounding – but these symptoms are not visible to your audience.
Recognising that your nerves are not as visible as you imagine can be a huge relief in itself. But there are additional things you can do to look more confident.
I had a cooking teacher at high school who told us that “good cooks are born, not made” which left me confused about why she had decided to become a cooking teacher!
This is a perfect illustration of a ‘fixed mindset’ described by Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’. A person with a fixed mindset believes that qualities such as intelligence and talent are innate and can’t be developed. Conversely, someone with a growth mindset has a thirst for learning, loves a challenge, and believes that they can improve by commitment and hard work. Carol’s research demonstrates that having a growth mindset is a better predictor of success than natural talent.
You may have heard the expression 's/he has the gift of the gab' meaning someone is naturally good at talking. But this reflects a fixed mindset towards verbal communication and public speaking. While some people probably do have natural talents in this area, it is possible for anyone to become a strong public speaker.
I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.