“Everybody will think I am a completely spineless imbecile with all the social graces of a demented rhinoceros on acid.”
Why does that sentence (and others like it) run through my head when I am asked to give a presentation? The final phobia I wish to talk about is fear of public speaking, otherwise known as glossophobia.
Sadly, as part of my job, I am sometimes asked to make a presentation to a handful of people or give training courses to external customers. Each time I am asked I quite literally explode with anxiety. The mere thought of standing up in front of even a handful of people causes me to mutate into a gibbering alien.
Of all my fears, glossophobia is the most irrational of all. Why should I be afraid to stand up in front of people talking about something I am very familiar with? It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
The first time I had to face this particular fear, I was asked to give a five day training course in the United States. I tried my very best to avoid the course; I even contemplated pretending to be ill. I felt like I was being thrown into a volcano that was about to erupt. Here I was, a terrified Englishman being asked to stand up in front of a handful of Americans for seven hours a day for five days. I’ve worked with Americans before and they are extremely friendly people who are easy to talk to in casual conversation. Generally, however, I find they possess a quality that, at the time, I lacked – they are supremely confident.
On the long flight across the pond, I replayed the course over and over again in my head. Each time I saw myself stammering and shaking; running out of the training room in blind panic; screaming in pure terror; passing out in panic.
I decided that I had to do something about it. In the hotel room on that fateful Sunday night I asked myself a simple question:
What is the worst that can happen?
Pretty soon, I came up with several terrifying scenarios and I concluded that, realistically, the worst case scenario would be my dismissal from the company, probably due to the fact that I had burst into tears and fled the building like a screaming banshee.
On the morning of the course, I had a light breakfast and absolutely no coffee. I told myself over and over again that nothing would happen and I encouraged myself further by telling myself that these people wanted to hear what I was saying. My students were desperate to learn and I was the only person who could hand over that knowledge. As soon as I had introduced myself, in my stammering voice, I allowed each of them to do the same and I was immediately struck by their confidence, friendliness and most importantly of all eagerness. They wanted to hear me.
I struggled for the first ten minutes. I was sweating profusely and my voice quivered. Occasionally I lost track of my train of thought, stopped, breathed deeply and somehow found my way.
After an hour I was in full flow and my fear had dissipated. When we had a break, I chatted to the students and they told me how much they were getting from my course. My confidence came back and the rest of the week was a breeze.
My problem is that each time I make presentations, my anxiety returns. As I prepare for the course or presentation, I am briefly possessed by the fretful beast within. And thankfully, these days I can overcome the anxiety because deep down I know that my audience want me to pass across my knowledge to them; they want me to succeed.
I have seen professional presenters flounder and somehow get a grip of the situation. I now know from experience that if I struggle myself all I need to do is call a break to compose myself or simply pause for long enough to control my inner turmoil. The good news is that now I can.
It still scares the hell out of me though.