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.
Talking about things you don't fully understand or don't believe in can be very uncomfortable.
I had an events manager who signed up for my course during COVID. Her company had done a 'pivot' from live events to online events, and she found herself having to present to clients about AV equipment and the technical aspects of running online events. This was not her area of expertise or interest! She became increasingly anxious as she had to bluff her way through presentations, hoping she would not be asked questions she couldn't answer.
I have had other clients who lack conviction in what they are doing. Perhaps they are selling a product they don't believe in or are expected to communicate a corporate message that they struggle with.
One of my clients had this to say,
"I spent three years in sales selling a product I didn't really believe in, so I think I felt like my integrity was being judged sometimes by my audience."
In the first course I ever ran, I had an environmental manager who had to present to hostile stakeholder groups. To make things worse, he did not believe that his organisation was fully committed to the environmental messages he was promoting as part of his job.
Leaving your job because of your fear of public speaking might sound like a drastic solution, but sometimes it is the right one. I will come back to this later in the article.
Expectations about the way the content should be communicated
I had a client who worked for many years on cruise ships and absolutely loved it. She is now in a corporate job in human resources – quite a contrast to her days on cruise ships. Although she likes her job, she hates presenting at work.
She talked to us several times about her adventures at sea and came across as bubbly, enthusiastic and passionate. Then one day, she gave us a presentation she was preparing for work, and she was stilted and wooden. She read off her slides and lost her contagious enthusiasm. Her presentation was also full of confusing corporate jargon.
I commented that I didn't think she had a fear of public speaking but a fear of 'corporate speak'! I questioned her about how much flexibility she had to drop the jargon and use plain English. For example, instead of saying something like,
"Our HR strategy is to align headcount and capabilities with our organisational strategy and priorities."
"We aim to ensure that we have the right people doing what is most important."
She took this on board but felt corporate speak was expected of her. Perhaps she was right, but I often notice that senior leaders are much better at being themselves than people in middle management.
I encourage people to put things in their own words as much as possible and drop the formality. Removing the corporate façade usually makes them feel more relaxed and is a better experience for the audience.
'Unsafe' or unsupportive work environment
Another issue people experience at work is the feeling that they are being negatively judged when they speak up or present.
There are a few things that could be going on here. I have written previously about how you are being judged way less than you imagine. But if you are sure it is not in your head, perhaps the organisational culture is to blame. Two things I see frequently are:
My client felt that admitting to nervousness would be seen as a weakness and that she should pretend to be pumped about this incredible opportunity that she was actually dreading!
I have seen for myself that organisations often value confidence over competence! In extreme cases, quite incompetent people can get appointed to senior positions because they know how to talk themselves up.
With a stronger emphasis on staff well-being and equal opportunities in the workplace, many organisations are willing to change organisational culture. Have a frank conversation with your manager or raise it in the annual staff engagement survey. If you are female and your organisation has a policy of getting more women into management positions, you might point out that a change in organisational culture could be more conducive to encouraging women to speak up.
Other organisations simply fail to recognise public speaking as a professional development priority. They expect their employees to be strong oral communicators but don't offer or fund training for these basic skills. Quite often, this is just a lack of awareness about the value of such training.
Know when to quit
I have had clients leave their job for the wrong reasons - to avoid facing up to their fear of public speaking. Usually, this is a temporary fix only when they discover their new job also requires public speaking.
So how do you know whether you are in the wrong job or need to work on your public speaking skills? It is not always easy because, for some people, both are true!
When you start a new job, you will likely have a period where you don't fully understand your content. But once you become more confident in the position, you should start to feel more confident talking about it.
If the anxiety lingers, it is possible that the job is not a good fit. Communicating a message that you are deeply uncomfortable with feels like a loss of integrity, and I have suggested to a few of my clients that they might be in the wrong job.
After a few months in any job, you should be able to answer yes to each of these questions:
If you are still unsure, go with your intuition. At some level, you will know if you are in the wrong job, and you owe it to yourself to make a plan to get out. Staying will gradually erode your confidence and sense of self-worth.
And finally, when you leave, you should still consider doing some training. Although the job may have triggered your initial anxiety, public speaking anxiety has a nasty tendency to escalate even after you have removed the trigger. Some practical training alongside a new job should help you develop or rediscover your public speaking confidence.
Blog written by Catherine Syme
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