21 Feb What does it feel like to PANIC when you’re public speaking? – and what can YOU do about it?
In a live news breakfast interview on the ABC in February Dr Benjamin Habib (Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia) experienced what he called the “worst public embarrassment” of his career. When the interviewers turned to him with a question he completely froze even though he fully knew the answer. He explained later that his body overloaded with adrenaline, his entire physique heated up, his muscles deadened and his skin began to vibrate as if being shocked with a mild electric current. He further explained in a blog he posted on the ABC, “The experience was mortifying, the feeling afterward devastating, and the humiliation very public.” You can read his blog here. He is a very brave man.
Dr Habib experienced something very similar to what is known in presentation skills circles as glossophobia: a diagnosable fear or anxiety of public speaking. And it’s very, very common.
This is very common!
I’ve specialized in helping people to overcome what they call presentation ‘stage-fright’, ‘nervousness’, ‘anxiety’ for the past two decades and this experience of Dr Habib is not new to me in any way.
I regularly meet highly stressed-out individuals who have suffered similar embarrassment. They are desperate for a quick fix to this ‘problem’. They don’t want it to ever happen again. They don’t want the embarrassment, and worse, they are afraid it will ruin their careers. I also find myself having regular conversations with senior managers and Board Chairs after they have witnessed a Chief Executive, Managing Director or senior manager tank in a business presentation (often in a board meeting or sales pitch situation). The Chairman of the Board is generally super clear about their desired outcome, “Fix this person, or I’ll have to let them go”.
So why does it happen?
In my experience there are three main reasons people suffer from glossophobia. The first two I can help with, the final reason requires medical intervention.
Reason 1: Embarrassment. If I received a dollar for every person I’ve spoken with who recounts a story of the school teacher who humiliated them, the board member who shouted at them, the colleague who taunted them, I’d be a rich woman! One of the most common causes of a deep-seated fear of public speaking is a negative experience. Essentially it goes like this:
85% of the people I help with executive presentation skills coaching (typically 6 hours of intensive rehearsal) request anonymity. They want the rest of you to think they naturally present brilliantly. It’s heartening to read that the presenters from the ABC contacted Dr Habib with words of encouragement and he was even congratulated by the CEO of Beyond Blue https://www.beyondblue.org.au for his bravery in speaking out about his anxiety. More people should be honest about presentation nervousness and then the rest of us wouldn’t feel so unworthy.
Some years ago now I worked with Sarah*. Sarah explained she was terrified of public speaking. When I asked her what she thought may have caused her fear, she explained, “When I was 10 years old and in grade 4 at school, I was presenting to my class. For no reason whatsoever my teacher started booing me and the rest of the class joined in.” Sarah developed an instant fear of public speaking that stayed with her until her contact with me at the age of 32. After we worked together Sarah spoke at a conference of 200 people and was given feedback that she was the best speaker on the day. She has conquered her fear.
Another client Meg* worked with me because she had started fainting in front of her corporate colleagues when presenting. Once she fainted on the first occasion, the fear of fainting again caused her to go into overload, which unfortunately caused her to faint. In other words the fear of fainting made her faint. Her boss explained the consequence of the fainting to me, “if you can’t fix her, I’ll have to sack her.” Once she overcame her fear of public speaking her career went from strength to strength. She is now an executive manager abroad and speaks regularly in her role to great acclaim.
Reason 2: Don’t want to look foolish. Here your self-talk is not robust and positive. There may not have been a particular ‘incident’ that led to your fear of public speaking. In this case you are afraid of something that might happen such as, saying the wrong word, putting up the wrong slide, not being prepared enough. You may be worried you may not be able to answer questions. It’s a general fear of looking stupid or ‘unworthy’ to one’s colleagues, superiors or loved ones. Let’s face it none of us wants to look foolish in front of people we care about.
Reason 3: Chemical imbalance. In this situation, poor diet, alcohol, drugs, or a more complex chemical imbalance cause unreasonable fear. If you can relate this this then it’s best you chat with a trusted GP.
Is it something you can fix?
Fear of public speaking is most definitely something you can fix. I’ve worked with thousands of people over the past 22 years and I promise you it’s something you can manage and eventually get over fully. Unbelievably for sufferers, it is honestly possible for people who have experienced panic in public speaking to eventually grow to enjoy their public speaking.
So what can you do to fix this?
There are essentially 5 key things you can do to better manage your fear of public speaking:
1. Prepare thoroughly. Engage in a process where you work out what you want to achieve in your presentation. Then work out what your audience needs from you too. Craft your message using a model that works like Bernice McCarthy’s 4Mat, and/or my 13-steps. Remember expert presenters follow a formula – every time. Then, design your visual aids (handouts, slides, whiteboard / flipcharts etc.) Once you’ve got that part sorted, it’s time to rehearse out loud until you feel you know what you want to say. Rehearsal is not the same as rote learning it. Rote learning doesn’t work unless you know how to do it properly. A clever trick that professional speakers use is to rehearse over the radio. Put the radio on and make sure there is lots of annoying talk and nonsense going on (enough to potentially distract you from your message). If you can present over the radio without losing your train of thought, then you can be confident you know your presentation well enough to remain focused on the day. In his blog, Dr Habib explained that he ran through his ideal answers in head the night before (to the point where he admits it stopped him sleeping). I don’t call thinking in your head rehearsing. Rehearsing involves standing up and saying the presentation out loud, in a variety of different locations, and with different words each time. Proper preparation prevents poor performance.
2. Breathe. It’s essential that you breathe diaphragmatically. This means into your diaphragm as opposed to breathing into your chest. If you breathe diaphragmatically it will circulate oxygen throughout your body and you’ll retain your clarity of thought.
3. Use of power of your mind. If you tell yourself over and over again, “I’m nervous, I’m nervous, I’m nervous” then what are you? That’s right! You’re nervous! If on the other hand you tell yourself that you can do it. It’s just another time when you are speaking with your fellow humans, everyone wants you to do well, you’ll find it helps. An Olympic athlete doesn’t tell themself they are going to lose the race before they participate. They future pace themself winning the race and being congratulated for their success. You must ensure you do the same. Telling yourself, “I hate public speaking!” is not helpful. Watch your self-talk.
4. Focus on your audience. As simple as it sounds, this is actually the most important tactic you can use to manage your nerves. Remember it’s not about you, it’s all about your audience. So get your focus off yourself and your own performance and onto the whites of your audience member’s eyes and fully connect with them. Be present for them.
5. Have a recovery strategy. Even the best presenters go blank from time to time. Make sure you have a plan for what you’ll do if you lose your train of thought or go blank. One idea is to have a drink of water at the ready, take a drink and compose yourself. If you know that there’s a back-up plan if you do happen to go blank then there’s logically nothing to fear.
I run an award-nominated Persuasive Presentation Skills Masterclass as a public event with a maximum of 10 people every month in North Sydney. I’ve run this Masterclass over 700 times for over 7000 delighted clients. I’ll also be visiting Melbourne in March and Brisbane in May. If you think you need to attend I’d love to have you there. I do honestly believe that life is too short to suffer from presentation anxiety. Take steps today to develop your presenting muscles and step up and showcase your professional expertise in a powerful, confident and compelling way. Happy Presenting!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michelle Bowden is an authority on persuasive presenting in business. Michelle is a CSP (the highest designation for speakers in the world), Founder of Speakers Club, co-creator of the PRSI (a world-first, psychometric indicator that tests your persuasiveness at work), best selling, international published author (wiley), 8 x nominee for the prestigious Educator Awards for Excellence (PSA), editor of How to Present magazine, producer of Michelle Bowden TV, and a regular commentator in print, radio and online media. Sign up for Michelle’s FREE How to Present magazine TODAY http://michellebowden.com.au