Public speaking anxiety in the corporate world – and how the stories we tell ourselves can make it worse
I have a client, let's call him Ben, who has recently started his dream job. He is a strong presenter, passionate about his work, is getting great feedback from his manager, and knows he is the right person for the job. But despite all this, he experiences high anxiety when presenting to an audience in his new job.
He dreads even introducing himself. He knows he will have to do more presenting in the future, and he is worried about undermining his credibility by looking nervous – or even worse – having a panic attack! Not that he has ever had one – in fact, he gets great audience reactions and good feedback after he presents. Ben also has a start-up and does not feel at all nervous when presenting in this context.
Ben is an extreme version of what I see in many clients. They are highly capable, reasonable or even good presenters and are comfortable presenting to certain audiences but are experiencing extreme anxiety in a corporate setting.
Here is another example. Sarah (not her real name) spent many years in the entertainment sector. She joined my course after starting a corporate job. Presenting was a large part of the role, and she hated it!
Sarah's first presentation in the course was about her previous career in entertainment. She was bubbly, engaging, charming, and showed no signs of anxiety. Her second presentation was what would have been a typical work presentation, and she seemed like a different person. She came across as professional but less engaging and relaxed. She had taken on a corporate persona that did not fit with what we had seen of her.
In the pre-course questionnaire I send to my clients, I ask them if any particular audiences worry them the most. Some people say, "all audiences", but the most common response is "senior leaders, executives, people who are senior to me and so on."
In this article, I explore what is going on for clients who get very nervous presenting to people with authority. It is a combination of a fear of being judged, the pressures of a corporate environment and feeling like they have to pretend to be something they are not.
I encourage people to talk about something they know and care about when they do the first speech for one of my courses. It requires little preparation, but more importantly, it eliminates one possible source of anxiety for people – having to talk about something that makes them feel uncomfortable.
Often people surprise themselves when they do that first talk. And they start to realise that their job may have triggered their anxiety. The reasons for this usually relate to at least one of the following.
I run courses for people with public speaking anxiety. In the pre-course questionnaire, 80% of participants say that they avoid public speaking if they possibly can. They turn down opportunities, get 'sick' on the day, ask others to step in for them, and even turn down jobs.
I am not suggesting that 80% of all people are actively avoiding public speaking. But I bet many of us have wriggled out of doing a presentation at some stage in our lives – I know I have!
Here are a couple of the more heart-breaking comments I have had from clients.
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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 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 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 fine. They were probably looking at how he acted under pressure 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.
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.