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.
Fear of being judged.
Ben knows that his company has high expectations of him. Much of his presentation will be to senior executives of his company's clients. He tells me that he is much more nervous in front of these executives when his boss or boss's boss is present.
Public speaking anxiety is almost always associated with a fear of being judged. It is entirely rational that Ben would worry more about being judged by his seniors than by executives of other companies. Those executives are evaluating whether Ben's company can meet their needs – they are not really judging Ben. But Ben's superiors will naturally be interested in whether Ben is doing a good job representing the company.
Ben is right to believe that he is being judged. But I will return to this later in the article because he is almost certainly overestimating the extent of this.
Some organizations feel scarier than others!
A few things contribute to this. It could be the formality or even the opposite – a jokey/blokey coziness amongst senior leaders that makes others feel excluded. Language is another factor. When leaders use a lot of jargon or 'corporate speak,' it can feel very intimidating. This was a big thing for Sarah. When she presented, she used words and phrases she would not normally use because she felt it was expected of her.
Inability to be yourself.
This is huge and directly related to the previous point – people feel that they need to project confidence, be professional, and act in a way consistent with the corporate culture - and that all of this requires them to pretend to be something they are not. Or at least that is what they believe.
How much of this is real?
I often wonder how much of what I have described is real versus the perception of my clients.
Of course, it is a bit of both. The corporate world can be intimidating. But some people's insecurities mean they are telling themselves stories that are not entirely accurate. I can't change the corporate world but I can help people to recognize these inaccuracies.
Let's go back to the previous points but reframe them in terms of the stories people may be telling themselves.
Story One "I need to perform well because I am being judged".
Your boss and other senior leaders form an overall impression, but they are not intently judging you every time they see you speak. Ben is already getting great feedback on his performance from his manager. So far, he has not had a misstep when speaking to an audience, but if he did, it would feel like an enormous failure to him. On the other hand, his boss would probably be more concerned for Ben than about Ben.
Buried in the "I need to perform well because I am being judged" story is another story - "I need to always perform to the highest of standards." I have written before about how many of my clients tend to be perfectionists – they set extremely high standards for themselves and hate ever falling short.
I suggested that Ben share what he is going through with his boss. He is thinking about it but is concerned that his boss would either minimize it ('you are doing great') or the opposite – see it as a big problem because effective communication is an essential part of his job.
He might be right that his boss would try to minimize it, but I would be very surprised if his boss reacted negatively. I hope that he would instead offer some support to Ben.
"Story two – Senior leaders are scary".
I suspect many senior leaders would be surprised that others find them intimidating! I have suggested to Ben that when he is a senior leader, he will laugh at the thought that junior staff find him intimidating – yet some will!
Sarah told us about having to present at an event with the international president in attendance, and the idea terrified her. But they had gone out to dinner with the president the night before, and she was surprised to find the president friendly, approachable, and personable!
"Story three – I need to pretend I am something I am not"
I have often observed that chief executives and other senior leaders are more comfortable telling stories and being themselves than those under them – especially those in middle management.
As I said earlier, Sarah used "corporate speak" in her presentation because she felt it was expected of her. And maybe she was right. But I had another client soon after Sarah, who I actively encouraged to drop the corporate speak. She gave us a fantastic presentation, and when I asked her what had changed, she said it was having permission to use everyday language and put things in her own words! This was a lightbulb moment for my client. When she stopped using corporate speech, she lost her fear of public speaking. It is unusual for one simple fix to make such a difference, but it did in this client's case!
Remember I said that Ben is nervous when he has to introduce himself? He has been attending a series of meetings with, say, 20-30 people in the room and online, and they usually start with a quick round table introduction. Ben sits there in dread waiting for his turn. Because he is new to the company, he has to explain his background – what qualifies him for the job.
Ben and I have talked about how he could focus on his 'why' instead of listing his achievements. Not what he has done but why he is so excited to have this opportunity. That was Ben's suggestion, and I thought it was a great idea. Talking about his passion for the job will help him immediately connect with the audience.
As I write this, I am reminded of an ex-work colleague. I have a background in local government and have frequently had to attend meetings to talk to a report. It feels very formal with many protocols, and most presenters are serious. But this ex-colleague of mine had a habit of cracking jokes and dropping the formality. He would often come away from a meeting saying, "I may have overstepped a line there…" But the politicians loved him! While he took some risks, he never bored them!
Story four - "I need to impress."
A strong desire to impress others is at the heart of the "I am being judged" story. It is natural because our career success depends on others believing we have the right personality and skills for the job.
But here is the problem. Trying too hard to impress others makes us self-conscious and can have the opposite effect. I always encourage my clients to think about how their message will help or benefit the audience rather than how to impress them.
I am sure Ben will look back in a few months with a lot more confidence. The next time he changes jobs, I doubt he will go through what he is currently experiencing. He will be a senior leader one day, and I hope he will look out for others like him – talented and motivated young people who are placing so much pressure on themselves to shine that they are experiencing largely self-induced anxiety!
Sarah contacted me recently to say she had changed jobs and could not be happier. This was what she said.
"Not long after finishing the course with you, I quit my job at .. and have been working for … as their People & Culture Manager for the past five months. I'm really enjoying it and have done quite a lot of public speaking with no issues at all. I'm able to be myself and present what I want and how I want, and it makes such a huge difference to my confidence. I also still use a lot of the tips and advice you provided."
In Sarah's case, her previous job was not quite the right fit. She is still in a corporate role, but the culture is more relaxed and more 'her'. For Ben, he has his dream job. He asked me once whether he just needed to 'toughen up?" My response was the opposite – he needs to stop being so tough on himself, show some self-compassion, allow himself to be a little less than perfect and stop worrying so desperately about whether he is making a good impression.
As someone who also used to experience extreme public speaking anxiety, these stories are all familiar to me. What stories are you telling yourself? Hopefully, this article has helped you separate 'fact from fiction' and permitted you to be yourself at work.
Or perhaps it has motivated you to:
Article written by Catherine Syme
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