Why avoiding public speaking is worse than doing it! It is career-limiting, stressful, and harder than you think.
Verbal communication skills are valued by employers. They consistently rank highly on lists of the top "soft skills". For example, the LinkedIn Learning 2020 Workplace report found that employers ranked "persuasion" as their number two soft skill requirement. And you can’t persuade without good verbal communication skills.
Public speaking is an important sub-set of verbal communication skills. But many people I come across, tell me they actively avoid public speaking.
There is a great story about a child with a fear of public speaking in season five of Rita – a popular Danish Netflix show. It features the kind, quirky, socially awkward headmistress Hjørdis who is also one of the school’s two teachers.
Students have been asked to present to the class on what they have learned about nature in the past week. Hjørdis announces, “We will start with Asta’s presentation of the great spotted woodpecker”. But Asta is not there. Her brother Albert says she had a "tummy ache and stuff" so has stayed home.
After school, Hjørdis questions Asta’s mother. Anette says that she let Asta take the day off because she felt so nervous that morning. Hjørdis tries to explain that it is important for children to learn to convey something to others.
Anette responds, “Is that important to all children? They won’t all become teachers.”
Hjørdis says, “You would be surprised how often people have to present something to others.”
Anette quickly responds, “You would be surprised how often that can be avoided!” She then firmly states, “I won’t put Asta through unnecessary failure."
The scene ends with Hjørdis agreeing she won’t force Asta. However, it turns out that Hjørdis and Anette have different ideas about what they agreed as we will find out in a minute.
Can public speaking be avoided?
Anette is partly right. Many people find ways of avoiding public speaking by avoiding certain career paths or letting others present for them. I have heard of people negotiating with their manager that they don’t have to do any presenting because it is not their strength.
But Hjørdis is also right when she says, “You would be surprised how often people have to present something to others.”
Avoidance might work in the short term but long term it is difficult, stressful, and career limiting.
Imagine you have chosen an IT career believing it to be a backroom job that allows you to avoid presenting. Maybe it starts this way. You interact with others but don’t have to talk to more than one or two people at once. But then you start thinking about career progression. Perhaps you want to take on a client-facing role. Or become a team leader. Or a project manager. These choices will require you to be able to present to small groups at least. You will find it career-limiting to rule out all choices that might require public speaking.
Even if you think you have avoided it, this probably won’t last. You may have a manager who knows you are nervous and gives the presenting job to others. But what happens when your manager leaves and the new manager expects you to take your turn?
Or perhaps you are in a job that involves some presenting but you manage to "get out of it" every time. You feel massive relief when you find an excuse or someone to cover for you. But the anxiety returns when the next "speaking opportunity" heads your way!
I have come across retired people who want to be able to speak at family events but have avoided it their whole lives. A recent example was a woman in her 70s who’s 100-year-old mother became ill and she panicked when she realized that she would have to deliver the eulogy when her mother dies.
The opposite of avoidance is exposure
"Exposure" - the opposite of avoidance - is the key to addressing any fear. Gradual exposure by moving outside of your comfort zone in manageable steps is highly effective.
Let’s go back to the story.
The next day Asta comes to school although half the children in the class are now away with tummy aches! But she runs out of the classroom when Hjørdis asks her to present.
Hjørdis follows her. “What are you scared of?” she asks? “All of it,” replies Asta. After some prodding she says, “That I will forget what to say.” “That I will say something stupid.” “Everyone will look at me."
Hjørdis helps Asta deal with each of these fears by making her a memory hat, a wisdom cane, and an endurance cape. On day three, Asta stands up dressed in this regalia.
“The great spotted woodpecker is common in Denmark. It is black, white, and red. Its special skull means it can hammer away at trees,” she starts bravely.
At this moment, her mother Anette walks in with Albert’s forgotten lunch. She is furious. Although Hjørdis explains that she didn’t force Asta, Anette starts removing the "silly clothes." Asta looks devasted.
Hjørdis asks to speak to Annette in the headmistress’s office.
Anette reveals that she was bullied at school as a fifth-grader after giving a presentation on the Cold War. She mixed up some of her words and later the class made up a song about her that still haunts her. “I just wanted to protect her,” she explains.
In the next scene, Anette is wearing the memory hat, the wisdom cane, and the endurance cloak, presenting alongside Asta. Despite looking terrified she finishes with a smile!
Most students who avoid public speaking at school don’t have a Hjørdis to support them. Many young people slip under the radar and leave school or even university with poor verbal communication skills. Fortunately, these skills can be acquired later.
If you are avoiding public speaking you can learn from Hjørdis, Asta, and Annette. Hjørdis created a safe environment and gave Asta some strategies to manage her nerves. With the right support, Asta was brave enough to "give it a go". And Anette realized that her original instinct to protect Asta was misplaced. She also found that it is never too late to address your fears.
If this sounds familiar I strongly encourage you to stop avoiding public speaking! Join Toastmasters or sign up for a Fear-less public speaking course. Yes, you will experience some short-term stress and anxiety. But you will be well supported. And you will be spared a lifetime of lost opportunity and ongoing stress and anxiety.
Finally, if you have children at school - don’t project your fear onto them. Encourage and support them in acquiring great communication skills. Read this article for a few ideas about how you can support them.
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.