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Ask the everywoman experts: How can I get over my terror of public speaking?

public speaking
Series: 

Three expert coaches give their advice to an everywomanNetwork member desperate to improve her confidence around public speaking in her leadership role…

 

An everywomanNetwork member writes...

I’ve recently been promoted and although I’m thrilled about the new challenges of the role, it unfortunately requires a certain amount of public speaking. I’ve always found speaking up in front of people difficult and have largely dealt with this so far by avoiding it whenever I can. In my previous roles that was reasonably easy to do, but in this new role, delivering presentations in front of large audiences will be expected, and I am already struggling with deep anxiety around this. A course or some coaching would probably help, but I don’t have time to do either before I’ll be having to lead meetings and giving presentations, on and offline, on a weekly basis. I’ve already done a couple of presentations to my new team online which I felt didn’t go as well as I wanted them too due to my nervousness and I’m losing sleep with the worry I’m not going to be able to perform this essential part of my job. I need some hacks — practical skills and mental support systems to get me through.

 

It's natural for everyone to fear they aren’t good at public speaking — but remember you’re probably better than you think, says executive coach Rasheed Ogunlaru.

Rasheed Ogunlaru

‘Practically, it helps to think of the ‘five Ps’ when presenting: the first is purpose, why are you presenting, what outcome do you want? Often, we're not clear why we're doing it, and therefore we’re not clear throughout it. Second is taking time to prepare yourself, your materials and your space so you feel comfortable in it — so much of confidence is to do with preparation. The idea you have to ‘perform’ is a third reason why people struggle — the idea that there is a particular way that you ‘need to be’. That's actually not true as long as you're getting information across. But do let your personality come through; if you're passionate be passionate, if you’re quiet and considered, be quiet and considered. Passion is the fourth P: what's going to make you enthused about presenting, because if you're not passionate that will also come across. And finally, person-centred: when people present, they often become self-conscious, but ultimately, the presentation is not about you — it's about the information you’re presenting. Focus on the audience and engage them. You mention a couple of presentations you’ve done already that you feel haven’t gone well. To that, I would say that the more you engage your audience, the more you'll know how they're responding to your presenting. See it as a conversation with a purpose rather than a presentation and [try to] have fun with it.

As a leader, it's your job to set the tone and temperature of a meeting or presentation and this this holds true on or offline. I tend to start by asking people why they're here or ask for a hand show around a question — who knows about this, who’s feeling this or that etc. This in turn will give you a feeling of who is in the room and what people want.

Finally, remember that the wonderful thing about public speaking, whether that’s presenting, speaking at conferences or doing briefings, is that it is an opportunity to boost your visibility and impact and for you to influence as a leader. As such, don't be afraid about putting your personality and messages into your speeches and presentations, and let people know why you do the job as well as the purpose of the organisation.

Rasheed Ogunlaru is a leadership coach, author of Soul Trader — Putting the Heart Back into Your Business and Life & Business Coach partner to the British Library Business & Intellectual Property Centre. www.rasaru.com

 

Absolve yourself from any feelings of shame around having this issue, because that compounds it, recommends speech trainer Jessica Regan.

Jessica Regan

‘The reason we fear public speaking has to do with the fact that 10,000 years ago when we strayed from our tribe, the chances are we’d be lunch. And that response to being watched by multiple sets of eyes has been passed down to us as a biochemical response to a stressful circumstance. In my work, I find that it's not just the fear of public speaking that’s the issue, it’s how hard women are on themselves about it. Talk to yourself like a friend instead: ‘Don’t worry; breathe; you’re fine.’

I stand in front of people for a living, and I couldn't do that psychologically if I didn't have a ritual before putting myself in a high-stress situation. Warm up: dance, sing in the shower or do yoga stretches to connect to your body – you can do this at the top of the day it doesn’t have to be right before the presentation.

Confidence, and charisma are when the body, the breath and the voice are all doing what you want them to do. It all starts with the breath. When you breathe fast your body thinks, oh! what are we getting ready for? Slowing down breathing slows down the rate at which you speak, as well as lowering cortisol.

The things that help you are the things that make you look good in public speaking. Count to five before you begin, taking a moment of grace to steady yourself — which builds anticipation in your audience too. Start quickly and it's hard to slow down, so try to speak slowly enough that it feels a bit uncomfortable — that’s probably just the right speed. And at the end of each point, take three beats before you begin again. That stops you speeding off and gives people a chance to receive what you've just told them and connect with it. If we rush what we’re saying people switch off. We think that we're saving time, but actually we’re sending a message that what we're saying is disposable.

As women, we are also used to being interrupted and can feel we just need to get things out. Practice saying, ‘I'm not finished, we'll circle back, I'd love to take questions at the end’ instead. And have the boldness to plough through — because people will back down and half the time they don’t realise they’re doing it.

Finally, bear in mind the Dunning-Kruger effect; that says that often the more competent you are, the more you underestimate yourself.

Jessica Regan is an actor and collaborator with The Spontaneity Shop. In association with ‘The Guilty Feminist’ podcast she delivers the ‘Big Speeches’ workshop online. www.guiltyfeminist.com/bigspeeches

 

You need to be confident in the fact that you will survive, whatever happens, says impact coach Jodi Goldman.

Jodi Goldman

‘Of course, you want to do it well, but confidence in public speaking also comes from knowing that you will be okay either way — that is the bit people struggle with.

No one is making you present because they just want to see you present, they're asking you because they want you to give this information to this group of people and believe you're the right person to do this. Put the emphasis on your audience and you will become less fearful and able to reframe what's going on.

And remember, a group is made up individuals. A lot of people who have a fear of public speaking say that the idea of an audience watching is what makes them nervous. But, if you shift the way you use the audience, and think of your speech more as a conversation, they can actually help you to feel more relaxed because you are getting something back from them.

One of the old-fashioned pieces of advice is to look at a clock at the back of the room, but if you're looking over people's heads, your peripheral vision sees all of these faces at once, and it feels like a mass. The better alternative is to look at one person while you're saying something, then move on to another and say the next thing, then on to another. Your eyes focus on those individuals and because you’re looking at them, they usually respond in some way, which not only helps you to relax, it actually makes you feel you are talking to a smaller amount of people.

You can do the same on Zoom too — have the screen view so you can see all the faces of your team but come back to look into the actual camera from time-to-time, because that's where everyone feels as if you’re talking to them.

Even after 20 years, I always take time to prepare myself before public speaking; I reassure myself that I know what I need to say, the words will come to me and the right information will be heard by the right person at the right time. The quickest way to change your body's reaction to things is to take deep breaths, so take the time to do that. And if you’re not able to do coaching right now to give you some personalised mantras, look at YouTube and do one of the free guided meditations for presenting or anxiety as a starting point.

Jodi Goldman is a Personal Impact Coach and an everywoman expert, working with professionals on the everywomanNetwork to help them develop magnetic confidence and communication skills. www.jodigoldman.co.uk