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.
Anna's story was also familiar because I have heard similar tales from other clients. Often they have had a bad experience at school or college. I even had a young man who dropped out of school at age 17 to avoid giving a speech! At age 21, he decided he wanted to go to college but needed to do something about his fear of public speaking first.
I have older clients - in their thirties and forties, or even fifties- who still have a fear of public speaking. And almost always, it has adversely affected their career. It has also taken a personal toll.
All my clients complete a pre-course questionnaire. Over 80% say that they actively avoid presenting if they can. And nearly 45% say that their fear has affected their career choices.
These are talented and motivated people who set high standards for themselves. They are well regarded by their peers and managers. And often, like Anna, they are hiding a "shameful" secret.
It is never too late. But young people can avoid years of distress by acting quickly to address their fear and improve their skills. Failure to act will have a significant impact.
If you suffer from performance anxiety or a fear of public speaking, this article explains why you need to act and what you can do.
Why You Need to Act
Having a fear of public speaking 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 dwell on it afterwards. This makes it worse the next time.
Avoiding public speaking is also stressful. There is the anxiety caused by having to find an excuse or someone to cover for you. The relief you experience is usually short-lived. Your anxiety returns, often 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. The last bullet point “Poor support for workers experiencing personal or professional difficulties” obviously covers a wide range of problems but undoubtedly includes 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.
Poor public speaking skills or avoidance 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 or underrated by more senior people in their organisation.
I also ask about the types of audiences that worry people the most. Here a few responses:
“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).”
If your presentation skills are lacking, employers may be reluctant to promote you even if they recognise your technical abilities. Senior roles almost always require good communication skills.
And if you are avoiding public speaking in the workplace, you are even more likely to be overlooked.
Fear of public speaking can stop you from taking opportunities
As I said in the introduction, a startling 45% of my clients say that their fear of public speaking has affected their career choices. Here are a few of their responses:
“Last year [in] 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!”
And it is not just employees who are missing opportunities. Some of my clients are business owners or artists, and they are missing the opportunity to grow their business or their following.
What You Can Do
As a young graduate, you are in a great position to act now and avoid years of stress and distress!
You are not born with a public speaking gene! Public speaking is a skill that anyone can learn. And you need the opportunity to practice in a safe environment.
Here are the steps I recommend.
Talk to your manager
Do this first, because your manager may pay for training or give you the time off work to attend a course.
Many people are reluctant to talk to their manager about their fear. They see it as a sign of weakness, and like Anna, feel the need to adopt an appearance of confidence.
There is no shame in being a nervous presenter, and it is much more common than you think. A good manager can support you in your journey to improve and gain confidence.
Take a public speaking course
There is a great TED talk by Eduardo Briceño, “How to get better at the things you care about”. He talks about the “performance zone” and the “learning zone”. To improve, we need to spend more time in the learning zone where we can make mistakes, and the stakes are low.
Find a public speaking course or join Toastmasters. Toastmasters is a cost-effective option for anyone prepared to make a long term commitment. But most public speaking courses will teach you some valuable skills and help grow your competence and confidence.
If you are investigating courses, make sure that you find a course that has a practical component. You can't improve your speaking by just taking notes.
Fear-less courses are targeted at people with high levels of anxiety. You will learn skills, strategies for managing nerves, and have plenty of opportunity to practice.
Look for regular, small opportunities
Confidence grows from having lots of practice. The problem for many people is that they don’t present often. When they do, it becomes a big deal, and if it goes badly, this has a huge impact.
Get into the habit of speaking up at meetings and social occasions. It will start to feel more normal eventually. 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!
Taking the first steps won't be easy. You will be outside of your comfort zone, and it will feel a little scary. But the potential benefits are hard to overstate.
I first visited a Toastmasters club in my twenties. It took me nearly twenty years to go back! If there is one piece of advice I could give my 21-year-old self, it would be to invest in developing public speaking skills as soon as possible.
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.