Her Fear of Public Speaking Ruined her Career

photo by Kriss SzkurlatowskiA few weeks ago, I was sitting in the waiting area while my car was being serviced when a woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation with me. She had noticed the flyers I had for a free public speaking workshop and told me that she desperately needed to improve her speaking skills because her failure to do so had ruined her career. As I looked at this bright young woman who seemed difficult to dislike, I asked her to tell me more.

To make a long story short, she was stuck in an individual contributor role when she really wanted to move into management. The single obstacle keeping her out was her fear of speaking to groups. She could contribute to conversations during meetings, ask questions when she was part of a large audience and give her status at her weekly staff meeting to a group of fifteen people. But whenever she was asked to “give a speech” she’d panic and do whatever she could to get out of it. The worst incident happened when she was tasked to give an important presentation to a group of ten people and she was so nervous that she ended up calling in sick that day, causing her boss to scramble to find a replacement.

I asked her how a speech to ten people is so different than her presenting her status in front of a group of fifteen coworkers. She said that one was a speech and the other wasn’t so I had her break it down. The first thing she said was that she had to stand up to give her presentation while she’d give her status sitting down. I asked her if she’d ever get up and use a whiteboard while giving her status and she said that she does from time to time. So again, I asked her how it’s different.

She was beginning to get frustrated so I explained to her that speech is simply a conversation to a group of people. I told her about a time I was in Walt Disney World when a group of tourists began asking me questions about the park. They had overheard me explaining the best times to see certain attractions to my group (I vacation there frequently) so they began asking me for advice. There were eight of them and I gave them my advice and answered questions for about five minutes. I then explained that this was just like a speech since I had an audience, gave an impromptu talk and even had a small question and answer session.

So now the woman began to see my point that it was merely semantics that were causing her a problem. If she thought of something as being a speech, she’d panic but the same exact circumstances where she thought of it as a conversation resulted in no stress. So by simply thinking of speeches and presentations as talks or conversations, she could eliminate half of her problem.

The next thing I mentioned to her was that when she was asked to do a presentation, to take it a step further and consider it a conversation that she’s able to prepare for. When she’s asked questions at her staff meeting, she has to give an impromptu answer which is more difficult than delivering a prepared speech. I told her that knowing this should boost her confidence since she’s already succeeding in this area.

So the point of all this is that people fear public speaking for a variety of different reasons and allowing this fear to get out of control can really limit our personal and professional success. Sometimes, fixing the problem is as simple as looking at things from a different perspective. In all cases, being aware of the problem and what’s causing it is the first step in moving in the right direction.

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