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Executives Battle Fear of Public Speaking

As the CEO of a major financial institution, he was called on daily to make decisions that moved millions of dollars. The man at the podium had just introduced him, and hundreds of expectant faces turned toward him. But the executive was frozen with fear, unable to deliver the talk that he’d rehearsed a dozen times, unable to even get out of his chair.

“This executive’s fear of public speaking is a common complaint; it often attacks people of prestige and power,” says Lynda Paulson, president of Success Strategies Inc., a speech coaching firm.

“It’s ironic that we’ve talked to people since we were age two,” she comments, “and yet we get in front of a group of people and we’re asked to speak about some subject we’re an expert on, and we become something we’re not: we fidget, we squirm, we sweat, we panic.”

Ms. Paulson, whose firm conducts speech training workshops throughout the U.S., explains that psychologists liken presentation phobia to a person’s fight-or-flight reaction upon meeting a beast in the forest. The heartbeat quickens, breathing becomes shallow — and an anxiety attack is under way.

“That’s what happened to this banker,” she explains. “Even though he was a successful CEO, well-educated, a wizard at business, he became frozen with fear.”

Studies confirm that fear of public speaking ranks No. 1 among phobias cited by business people. And today’s executives face a growing need to communicate effectively. They are called on increasingly to give presentations — to communicate with employees and top management, with industry groups, shareholders, stock analysts, community groups, legislators and the media.

To help business people conquer presentation phobia and put them on the road to becoming accomplished public speakers, firms such as Success Strategies conduct group workshops. “The only way to overcome a fear is to learn to do the thing you fear,” says Success Strategies’ Ms. Paulson.

Her coaching program comprises a two-day workshop in which students address the group and are videotaped; their presentations are then critiqued by the participants and by the instructor.

Facing Your Fears “The only way to counteract that fear level is to have people get up and speak in a controlled, safe environment, in front of people who are in the same situation they are,” explains Ms. Paulson. “For those with severe stage fright, we let them give their first presentation from where they are in the room, remaining seated. Then we ease them into standing up in front of everyone.”

Comments Philip Rollhaus, president and CEO of manufacturer Quixote Corp. and graduate of Success Strategies’ basic and advanced workshops: “The repeated practice in front of people, the tips, the videotaping, the critiques all helped me become more comfortable with public speaking.”

Another alumnus, Gerry Kenny, vice-president of administration at Kenny Construction Co. in Wheeling, notes:“I’m still nervous before every speech – and I do a lot of speaking around the country, to audiences ranging from real estate groups to congressional subcommittees. But the course taught me to take that nervous energy and make it a positive. When you’re prepared and know the techniques, you have confidence.”

Tension can be good Speech coaches stress that effective speakers use the natural energy sparked by the tension of a presentation situation to their advantage — to generate enthusiasm, to move around the room, to change their voice tone and volume. Ms. Paulson adds that moving away from a podium, holding eye contact and using natural gestures are techniques that help transmit calmness from the speaker to the audience.

Tone of voice and animation when delivering a speech also play roles in presentation phobia. “The speaker who tries to counter his sense of panic by memorizing a talk almost guarantees disaster,” Ms. Paulson says. “He or she will speak in a monotone-sounding voice and look mechanical, detached, uninvolved with the topic.”Instead, she stresses familiarization with the subject, then rehearsal.

“Thirty percent of preparation is getting the material together,” she says. “Seventy percent is rehearsal — out loud, in front of a mirror, another person and/or a video camera. That way, you can see how you look and fine-tune your act…. People in the audience judge a presentation by your delivery first. If your delivery is not effective, if you seem nervous yourself, the content does not come across.”

  Advice For Beating Presentation Phobia

“Everyone is nervous before giving a speech,” says Lynda Paulson, president of Success Strategies Inc., a speech coaching firm. “Fear of public speaking is a natural, powerful emotion. But the panic spurts can be overcome.” Here are a few of her suggestions:

  1. Prepare thoroughly, but don’t memorize your talk. Prepare an outline and then practice and internalize main points. Rehearse in front of a mirror or a video-camera. Work to appear natural and at ease.
  2. Before you’re called on to speak, practice positive thinking. Repeat positive messages mentally, such as, “I’m ready. I’m confident. I feel good about this.” Eventually, your subconscious will start to believe it.
  3. Before you speak, tense all your muscles, hold for a few seconds and let go all at once. This exercise will relax you.
  4. When you rise to speak, don’t grab the podium. Stand clear of it and move around.
  5. Look the audience in the eye, one person at a time, and hold that eye contact for a few seconds with each man and woman. This builds confidence — in you and in your audience.
  6. Use your natural energy and enthusiasm as you speak. Gesture, move around the room, change the tone and volume of your voice.

Lynda Paulson

An executive speech coach for over twenty years, Lynda Paulson with Success Strategies is renowned for teaching public speaking and executive presentation skills to professionals, management, and individuals from every walk of life.

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I wish I’d had it years ago! Mandatory for anyone who communicates for a living.

Stephen R. CoveyAuthor of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People