Saturday, 16 August 2008

Fear (Part Three) - Public Speaking

“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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can totally sympathize with your fear. My husband goes through the same ordeal when it comes to public speaking, and it gets pretty bad that he winds himself up so much about it, not only that but he also suffers stuttering especially when stressed and it's pretty bad. I try to be really sympathetic about it, but unless youve been through it, I dont think anyone can really understand.

Great blog tho. Thanks for the add on BC.