I have been collecting data for two years from people who resister for a Fear-less public speaking course. Two of the questions I ask my clients are:
This article is the first of a two-part series. Part one is written mainly for people who have a fear of public speaking. My aim is for them to recognise the impact it is having on them professionally and how it doesn’t always have to be this way. Part two will be written for managers, Learning and Development professionals, recruiters, and those responsible for workplace wellbeing to help them understand the organisational impacts and how helping people address their fear of public speaking benefits everyone.
Professionally fear of public speaking can affect you in at least three ways:
1 - It causes stress and anxiety
If you are nervous about public speaking you may start worrying and losing sleep weeks before you have to give a presentation. And if it doesn’t go well, you will probably experience considerable anxiety afterwards.
If you are avoiding public speaking this also causes stress and anxiety. Firstly, there is the anxiety caused by having to find an excuse or someone to cover for you every time you are asked to speak. The relief you experience from avoiding another humiliating experience is often short-lived, and your anxiety is intensified when the next ‘opportunity’ comes along.
Stress in the workplace is a serious problem in many organisations. The Health Navigator website lists common causes of workplace stress which include working long hours, bullying, too much or too little work, blurring of boundaries between home and work, and conflict in the workplace. The last bullet point “Poor support for workers experiencing personal or professional difficulties” obviously covers a wide range of things but will include people who struggle with public speaking. And this is not necessarily the employer’s fault because many people do not tell their manager about their fears.
2 - It can hold you back from being noticed or recognised
Many of my clients know they are good at their job but feel that they are invisible and/or underrated by more senior people in their organisations.
Another question I ask is whether there are certain types of audiences that worry people the most. This is an open-ended question so I don’t have statistics on responses but here a few example:
“Presenting in front of more senior people is harder for me. I had to present a whole bunch of facts and figures to a senior management team once and they then bombarded me with a whole lot of curly questions. I found it hard to keep my focus and feel confident in this situation.”
“Work audiences in the boardroom at senior levels”
“At work. Our executive team”
“Probably presenting to people more senior than me in the company”
“A year ago, I positively died on the stage in front of the whole team (while in a panel discussion with upper management.”
“Colleagues, senior executive, line manager and above. However, I seem to be Ok when it is to my team.”
The poor impression that you can create from presenting badly, usually reflects your lack of public speaking skills rather than your technical expertise, but it may not be interpreted this way by senior leaders. And even if they recognise your technical abilities, they may be reluctant to promote you to positions where you are more visible if you have problems communicating.
And if you are avoiding public speaking in the workplace you may not be creating a bad impression but you will remain invisible or unnoticed.
3 - It can stop you from taking opportunities that are right there
As I said in the introduction, a startling 45% of my clients say that they have avoided accepting a promotion or applying for a job due to their fear of public speaking. Here are a few of their responses:
“Last year August my manager left and I know I have the skills, knowledge, experience but I just lacked the confidence to apply with the fear of potentially having to talk in front of a large audience (even 700 people) as part of the job.”
“I didn't apply for a leadership position because the application process involved presenting to senior management.”
“There was a curatorial position at a museum I was working at about ten years ago. I didn't apply because the curator usually gave a talk at the opening. I really kicked myself as the person that got the job was terrible and I had to work under them. They didn't give talks at the opening anyway.”
“Didn’t apply for a job (EA to CEO role) where regular presenting and providing updates to team members on projects was required.”
“Lots of times! I just make excuses! I want to maybe move on from my job now but am too scared that in my next job I won’t be able to hide my fear! So, I’m just staying out!”
These quotes speak for themselves (and I have plenty more I could have chosen). In fact, probably the number one reason that people register for a Fear-less course is that they realise their fear is seriously limiting their career choices.
It is not just employees who are missing opportunities. Some of my clients are business owners and they are missing the opportunity to promote and grow their businesses.
What you can do about it
If all of this sounds horribly familiar, read on because it doesn’t always have to be this way! Regardless of what stage you are in your career, you can do something about it. The earlier the better but even if you are late in your career it is still worth acting. I get private clients who have retired. They have spent their working life avoiding public speaking but then want to talk at family weddings, milestone birthdays and funerals and are disappointed in themselves that they can’t.
Many people fail to recognise that public speaking is a skill that can be learned. Everyone can grow their confidence by learning how to be a better speaker and having the opportunity to practice. You will have to move outside your comfort zone but the key is to do this gradually by starting in a safe environment. Here are three things I recommend:
1 - Talk to your manager. Do this first, because your manager may be prepared to help you out by paying for training or even giving you the time off work to attend a course.
This sounds simple and obvious but my guess is that most people don’t do this. They see their fear as a sign of weakness and they don’t want to admit to it, even though their manager may already have noticed. Most people who do Fear-less courses are professionals and most pay for the course themselves. There is no shame is being nervous about public speaking and it is much more common than you think!
2- Take a public speaking course. Take a public speaking course or join Toastmasters (a cost-effective option for people who can make a long-term commitment). Fear-less courses are specifically designed to address nervousness but all courses will grow your confidence if you fully commit.
3 - Take the small opportunities that come along. Confidence grows from having lots of practice. The problem for many people is that they don’t speak often. When they do it becomes a big deal and if it goes badly this has a huge impact. But if you can get into the habit of speaking up at meetings and at social occasions it will start to feel more normal. Even speaking to yourself will help! Try giving yourself daily short speech topics and record it. Dale Carnegie who wrote the Art of Public speaking, had to overcome his own fears first. Apparently he began by lecturing his father’s livestock!
Article written by Catherine Syme
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.