Why public speaking scares you and how to overcome your fear
Source: Forbes | Published: march 7 by Susan Adams
Jerry Seinfeld once joked that for most people, the fear of public speaking ranks higher than the fear of death: “This means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
For Jane Praeger, a New York City media and presentation coach, helping people overcome those fears is a critical part of her coaching. Praeger (full disclosure: a friend of mine) coaches corporate, non-profit and academic clients to make presentations on camera and in front of groups. She teaches in Columbia University’s graduate program in strategic communications, runs group trainings and she also does a lot of work one-on-one, with people who are paralyzed by their fear of public speaking.
Praeger stands by the standard advice: know your material and the audience, practice your speech, check out the room in advance, do relaxation exercises like deep breathing, don’t apologize for being nervous. But Praeger says the most important lesson she’s learned as a coach is that most people have no idea where their public speaking phobia comes from. Praeger says that once she does some detective work with her clients, she can uncover the source, get her client to see it, and usually make the fear evaporate.
In almost every case, she says, the fear has nothing to do with the speaker’s ability to talk clearly and fluidly or even to feel comfortable in front of a group. It’s usually connected to some other fear or past wound, like a parent’s disapproval, worry that colleagues will think you aren’t polished enough, or concern that you don’t have encyclopedic knowledge about your topic. Sometimes, says Praeger, the fear stems from the fact that you don’t like your job, but haven’t yet grappled with that issue.
Example: Praeger coached a New York management consultant who was slated to speak to a group of 100 colleagues about doing business in Brazil. The consultant was extremely anxious about her presentation but she didn’t know why.
Praeger started probing and eventually discovered the woman had already traveled to Brazil with senior colleagues, and that she had felt they ignored Brazilian culture and etiquette and alienated some of their clients. The fear she was experiencing had nothing to do with public speaking. She was afraid she might embarrass her colleagues in the audience.
Praeger helped the woman put together a presentation where she told stories about her own experience in Brazil, with humility and a positive spin. For instance, she related how she craved to return to her hotel at the end of the day and collapse, but realized that it was important for potential clients that she accept dinner invitations and build relationships outside of work. Americans don’t necessarily expect this, but Brazilians do, she learned. Once she confronted her fear and crafted a presentation that focused on her own experience, her nerves calmed.
Another example: A woman at a Los Angeles exercise equipment company felt terrified about her upcoming sales pitch to a group of 15 people at a company that runs gyms. She had no clue why she was so scared. Praeger asked her a series of questions and discovered the woman just didn’t like working as a business-getter. Once she acknowledged her feelings, the presentation became much easier. Praeger also helped her cut down her talk, losing three quarters of the power point slides she had planned to use and simplify her pitch. Praeger also encouraged her to begin with a personal story to help her make an immediate connection to her audience. The meeting went well and she won over the client.
One more example: A man at a New York investment firm did a disastrous job every time he spoke to groups about his stock forecasts. His firm sent him to Praeger because in presentations, he appeared combative and testy. Praeger started quizzing him and learned that whenever he presented, he was asked about how he thought the overall market would perform. He then felt like he was a fraud because he couldn’t answer the question. His fear manifested itself as anger. Praeger persuaded him to answer with levity, by saying if he knew what the market would do, he’d be a billionaire and wouldn’t have to work for a living. Once he confronted his feelings and came up with a response to the question he feared, he became affable and relaxed.
Then there was the advertising executive who froze when he was slated to make a presentation to several hundred colleagues at his agency’s end-of-year staff meeting. Praeger asked what was going through his mind when he was preparing to speak, and he said he was sure that the audience would think he was stupid, that he was saying “uh” too frequently, and that he was making grammatical errors.
Praeger asked him whom he knew who would think that of him and he realized that his father, a sharp trial lawyer, had always criticized the way he spoke. Praeger helped him populate his mental (and possibly literal) audience with buddies who thought he was funny and charming, and exorcise the memory of his father. She also helped him realize he didn’t need to sound like a litigator, but could just be himself. He was finally able to make the presentation without falling apart.
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