This email arrived in my inbox today,
"Hi, I am terrified about public speaking and the panic attacks that come with it! I go to great lengths to avoid these situations, and it's having an impact on my life. Is this the sort of course that can help me? Thanks."
I highlight it not because it is unusual but because it is typical.
Nearly 90% of people who sign up for our public speaking courses report that they actively avoid public speaking. And almost half of them say that a fear of public speaking has affected their career. Some have not applied for a promotion or their dream job. Others have designed their whole career around avoiding public speaking - or so they think!
I'm sure you have people with an intense fear of public speaking lurking within your organisation. And you probably don't know about them. You may be thinking that excellent communication skills are essential for your staff and the people I describe if they exist, don't have much of a future in your organisation.
But what if I were to tell you that people who dread public speaking could be some of your highest achievers? And they may already be in senior roles in your organisation? Now that you think about it, perhaps you have noticed that Susan always sends her team leader to board meetings rather than fronting herself. And maybe I have you wondering whether Neil really was sick when you had to step in and cover for him at a big presentation recently!
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.
A few months ago, I had a phone call from a young woman who needed help. Anna (not her real name) was a marketing graduate who had landed a great first job in the grocery sector. But she was suffering from anxiety because she was required to present to a corporate audience of more than one hundred people. The audience included members of the senior leadership team.
She explained to me that she had had a bad experience of public speaking at college. And it still haunted her. Apart from that one experience, she had done very little presenting.
I discovered she would be presenting with two other more experienced people. I suggested that she tell them that she was nervous so that they could provide her with some support. But she couldn't do this, she told me, because everyone expected her to be excited about this "opportunity". Instead, she was full of dread!
Her story sounded familiar. Many years ago, I graduated with good grades but limited public speaking skills. Eventually, in my forties, I joined Toastmasters. But that was after twenty years of intermittent anxiety and avoiding public speaking at times.
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!
Research shows that 70% of people will experience the 'Imposter Syndrome' at some stage in their life.
There are conflicting statistics about how many people fear public speaking. But we know that it is a common fear. And I am willing to bet that there is a significant overlap between people who experience the Imposter Syndrome and people who fear public speaking.
Do you find impromptu speaking difficult? Are you articulate giving prepared presentations but struggle to “think on your feet?” Many people find this hard. Even when you have plenty to say, organizing it into something coherent can be challenging with no time to prepare.
In a recent job interview, my 21-year-old son was asked to describe a time he had to think “outside the box” in an everyday situation. He said he would need a minute to think. He came up with a work-related example that was not very radical and only partly his idea. It was to do with their pricing strategy, and he admitted it was mainly his boss’s idea. He thought that the interview had gone quite well but was worried about his answer to that question.
He got the job, and I am guessing that his response to that question was adequate. They were probably looking at how he would respond to a tricky question rather than what he said. Asking for a minute to think was a good strategy. It showed that he didn’t panic. And he came up with an answer even if it wasn’t a brilliant one.
In 2015, Victoria University of Wellington did an Employability Skills survey to find out what employers are looking for in their graduates, apart from a degree of course! Read Survey. The survey found that the number one attribute (also known as ‘soft skill’) that employers want from graduates is work ethic while verbal communication skills are number two. They rank ahead of analytical and critical thinking (number four) and well ahead of written communication skills (number eight).
Other surveys and experts in New Zealand and overseas have found similar results.
Absolute IT, a New Zealand IT recruitment agency quotes an Absolute IT Job Seeker Insight report which found that tech professionals rate communication skills as the most important skill to get ahead in the workplace.
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.