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!
I have met many people with an intense fear of public speaking. And most of them are hard-working, talented people, respected by their colleagues, and valued by their managers. Many seem outwardly confident and tell me that their peers would be surprised to learn how much they dread public speaking.
A concerning number of our clients have never talked to their manager about their fear. Many feel ashamed. They are often "Type A" personalities who set high standards for themselves. They are embarrassed by their inability to present confidently. Their fear of public speaking is like a dirty little secret that they work hard to hide.
They are also worried about being pressured to take an in-house course or a course with others from the organisation. Our clients don't want to expose their fear to colleagues. They want to be 'anonymous' and to be with others who know how they feel. Realising that there are others just like them is incredibly reassuring!
How can you help?
If you suspect you have employees who make a habit of avoiding public speaking, I suggest you don't target them directly – unless they have already raised the issue with you.
Instead, you can make it known that you want to lift the standard of presenting across the organisation or your team. Most people have room to improve their presentation skills, even if they are reasonably confident already.
Ask your staff to think about whether they would benefit from some public speaking training. But don't prescribe a specific course. Instead, suggest that they investigate options and bring these to you for discussion.
At your next one-on-one, ask each person whether they enjoy public speaking. People are more likely to admit that they don't enjoy it, than to tell you about their extreme anxiety. For those who enjoy it or feel neutral, you could still ask whether they would like some training. Toastmasters is an excellent and cost-effective option for people who want to improve their skills.
If someone tells you that they don't enjoy public speaking, you can be sure that they are nervous. Most people find public speaking at least a little anxiety-inducing and so you can reassure them that nervousness is normal and natural.
Be clear that you have expectations around improving the standard of presenting across the organisation/team, and work with them on the best option. A short public speaking course outside of the corporate environment is a good first step for someone worried about looking nervous in front of their peers.
What can you do when you know someone has a problem but won't deal with it?
Some people are hugely resistant to doing anything about their public speaking anxiety. They might tell you that they are happy to focus on other things, but they never want to front presentations.
Taking the step to deal with a fear of public speaking can be a huge decision. I have people who take months to sign up for a course after their initial contact.
I don't recommend forcing anyone to take a course just because you think they need it. It is much better if they take the initiative themselves. You can reassure them that you will fully support them when they are ready. Often it is just a matter of timing. If they are good at their job and generally happy at work, they will be aware that they have to do something eventually!
However, there may come a time when you have to insist they take action if someone's fear of public speaking is seriously impacting their ability to do their job.
Try offering them some breathing space. Tell them that you will relieve them of public speaking duties temporarily while they take a course. Put some time frames around it and find a way of gradually reintroducing speaking duties. Don't give them two months off and then expect them to present to 200 people!
How big is the problem?
Research suggests that over 70% of people get nervous about public speaking and that 10% suffer from extreme anxiety. That is a lot of people who are potentially avoiding public speaking or finding it incredibly stressful.
I have no accurate way of knowing the magnitude of the problem in the workplace, but I suspect it is significant. I would love to do some research on this one day. If you are reading this article and part of a large organisation that might be interested in facilitating such research, please reach out!
Paying for public speaking coaching is a great investment for businesses and a worthwhile use of your training budget.
Also consider giving staff time off to attend a course during the day or to prepare. We primarily offer evening courses for people who pay for themselves and arrive after a full day's work. But I would love to be able to provide more daytime courses for people who have been given space for professional development.
The returns go well beyond the new skills acquired. People often gain confidence more generally and feel empowered by their ability to hold an audience's attention. Staff who have never aspired to leadership roles may start to show an interest. There is no downside that I can see!
Article written by Catherine Syme
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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.