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The Fear of Public Speaking

Several years ago, I jumped out of an airplane. Yes, the plane was flying and, yes, I had a parachute. Am I some extreme dude who thrives on mortal risks and believes that life is only worth living when it’s about to end? No. In fact, I’m somewhat risk-averse; waterslides bother me and I get nauseated even on merry-go-rounds. How, then, was I able to leap from an airplane at five thousand feet above the ground and overcome my fear of creating a small crater in some farmer’s field? There were three factors that made it possible, the same three factors that enabled me to face the first of my many audiences.

The fear of public speaking is, according to some claims, the greatest fear of all, bigger even than the fear of death (although this should not be surprising: give a poor speech and you’re still around to suffer the consequences). Can this fear be overcome? Well, of course it can, otherwise, given that most people start out fearful of the stage, the podiums of our meeting rooms, auditoriums, and classrooms would be empty. How to overcome that fear is the point of this article.

First, however, a brief digression is in order. There is a difference between a fear and a phobia. A fear is reasonable, a phobia is not. For example, consider the fear of snakes. If you cannot distinguish those that are harmless from those that want to turn you into dinner, it’s reasonable to fear them all. But if you discover that this one particular wriggler is a harmless garter snake and, instead of stopping to admire its colors as it slithers past you, you run screaming from it, your reaction is a phobia. Fears and phobias need to be handled differently: A fear will succumb to the techniques I discuss below, a phobia will resist them. So, before you embark on any program to relieve your fear of addressing an audience, you first need to determine which of the two is the cause of your twitching hands and sweating palms. Here are three simple tests to determine if your reaction to going on stage is a fear or a phobia.

  1. Can you speak confidently to two or three people in a social or business setting? If so, your reaction is probably a fear.

  2. In a formal meeting of your peers, are you able to make your point or defend a position adequately and articulately? If so, your reaction is a fear.

  3. However, if your mouth goes dry and the spigots embedded in your armpits turn to gushers when you are asked to present information such as your status, your reaction is most likely a phobia, especially if you have the same response regardless of who has asked the question. Most people cannot overcome phobias by themselves. Seek professional help (phobias can be cured), then come back and read the rest of this article.

Returning to parachuting, the three factors that enabled me to overcome my fear of flattening a goodly portion of some farmer’s crop were:

  1. The rewards were compelling.

  2. Success was achievable.

  3. The preparation was exacting, demanding focus.

These same factors apply to overcoming any fear or yielding to it. If you believe that the activity that induces the fear is not worth doing or that success is elusive or that there is no way to prepare adequately, you’d be a fool to carry on.

So let’s look at each of these.

Are the Rewards Compelling?

As a project manager, one of your principal responsibilities is to communicate with the stakeholders of the project. This involves leading meetings, making presentations, facilitating decision-making, acting as a cheerleader for your project and your team, and, sometimes, bearing bad news to people in authority. Doing these well does not mean that you are a good project manager—there’s more to managing projects than speaking—but doing them poorly does mean that your ability to inspire project teams, to convince clients and management that you are in control, or to advance in your career to larger, more complex, and more fascinating assignments will suffer.

Your first step, therefore, is to believe in—to be thoroughly convinced of—the rewards that await your ability to deliver successful presentations. Imagine your most intractable client saying, “That was an excellent review of the status. Thanks,” or even, “You’ve made the problems on this project clear, but I think you’re the best person to handle them.” Or how about, “Our clients were really happy with your last project, so we’d like you to tackle this [much bigger, riskier, more complex, more profitable] project.” Would these reactions inspire you? Would they be worth the effort to learn to deliver good presentations? You may be thinking, “Well, I’d love to hear those comments, but it’s not likely.” Don’t worry. If you’d love to revel in the light of a great presentation, you’ve satisfied the first condition: The rewards are compelling.

Is Success Possible?

Is success possible? Since others have succeeded, this is a dumb question. What you really mean is “Is success possible for me?”

The problem here hinges on your definition of success. If you regard success as achieving the acclaim (or, at best, the lack of condemnation) of your audience, you do indeed have a justifiable concern because few audiences will respond favorably to a speaker who is more concerned with his or her status than with the real reason that they’re there. With rare exceptions, audiences do not gather to hear orators orate. Hearing the rolling mellifluous tones of an accomplished speaker’s voice is a bonus, but it is not why they’ve come. Audiences gather because they want information or they want to understand issues that they will be asked to help resolve or they want to provide information to some process. While it doesn’t hurt to speak well, the members of an audience will be satisfied if their primary purpose in giving up some chunk of their time is met. Therefore, success is the extent to which you have shaped and met the audience’s expectations.

Given this, success should be simple. Can you stand up before an audience and say, for example, “In this session, I’d like to familiarize you with this issue, to let you know how we’ve addressed it, and to tell you the effects it will have on your work.”? Then, can you deliver? If so, you can succeed. Will the members of the audience be happy? Will they be inspired? Will they love you? Who cares? Making them happy or inspiring them or inducing rapt expressions of awe was not your goal, nor, as a project manager, is it your role.

Therefore, before any presentation, you must define for yourself the goal of your presentation. Why are you doing it? What do you want to achieve? Furthermore, that goal must be from the point of view of the audience. If your goal is, “To enhance my status,” why would anyone care to come? (Of course, if you do well, your status will grow, but that’s a by-product of the success of the presentation, not its primary purpose.)

Of course, your goal must conform to the requirements of your audience. If you are addressing senior management on the project status, they won’t care about such esoterica as IP address conflicts. They want to know about money, dates, and risks.

Then, once you have defined your goal, you need to tell it to the audience. Often, the goal is implicit: The purpose of a status review meeting is to review status. But it never hurts to make the goal explicit, like the airline announcement, “This plane is going to Los Angeles. If you don’t want to go to Los Angeles, now is a good time to get off.”

Is the Preparation Exacting?

When I leapt from the plane, the instructions were precise. The plane was a single-engine Cessna with no door on the right side. When it was my turn to jump, I was given a command by the jump master. Facing the front of the plane, I crouched beside the door, which was on my right. At the next command, I swung my left foot over my right leg onto a small step outside the door. At the next command, I swung my body out of the plane and grasped the strut of the wing. My right leg was floating free. At the final command, I let go. The static line attached to the plane would pull my ripcord.

Why not just leap out of the plane? Because I was a novice and my trainers had to ensure that when the parachute opened, I was lying prone facing the ground so that the parachute would rise up from my back. If I were not in that position, the chute would be pulled around me and there was a good chance I’d be caught in the lines. That would not be a good thing.

There are two points to be made. The first is that the preparations, being so precise, forced me to focus on the tasks that had to be done instead of on the consequences of not doing them. The second point is that the very existence of these steps reassured me that what I was about to do had been done by others many times before. Had I been told, “just jump out of the plane,” I doubt I would have had the comfort that the people who were training me knew what they were doing or had my best interests in mind.

Public speaking imposes the same demands: The preparations should be exacting. Here are some rules to force your focus.

  1. Stick to the topic
    You’ve defined your purpose, now adhere to it. Squash the temptation to add other information or to touch on topics that are only peripherally related. If someone raises a point that is off topic, have the following response ready, “That’s a good point but I’d rather not get into it here. Let’s get together later to discuss it.” Then move on.

  2. Practice
    Find yourself a private room and deliver your presentation exactly as if you had an audience. Speak out loud. Listen to the sound of your voice. Practice until your talk becomes conversational, with normal variations in tone and volume.

  3. Know the room
    If possible, visit the room ahead of time. Many a prepared speaker has crumbled at the sight of a chaotic or awkward setup. While you might not be able to change anything, at least you can be prepared. Where will you stand? Is there a podium? Will you need a mike? If so, is it attached to a podium, is it on a stand, or will it attach to your lapel? Does it have a cable that could trip you up? Where will you place your notes? Your computer? How are the audience’s sight lines? If you are part of a program of speakers and you need time to set up, tell the audience so, ask them to take a short break, then ignore them while you get ready.

  4. Have some water available
    Your mouth will get dry, not only because you’re nervous, but because you’re talking. Have a bottle of water to hand and sip from it regularly. Not only does it refresh you, it introduces a pause to allow you to collect your thoughts for the next subject.

  5. Minimize distractions
    What are your nervous habits? Do you twist your ring or fiddle with a pendant or twirl a necklace chain? If so, take them off before you go on stage. Put your watch on the podium or on a table where you can glance at it. If you must use a laser pointer, force yourself to lay it down after each use.

  6. Avoid humor
    Unless you are an accomplished stand-up comic, don’t attempt to be funny because when your poorly told joke fails to elicit laughter, you’ll be thrown off. Don’t start a talk with, “Did you hear the one about the farmer’s daughter” unless your topic is something like “The Sociology of Family Dynamics in an Agricultural Milieu.” Humor has its place and, once you become more comfortable, you can throw in some off-beat lines, but never tell a joke that has nothing to do with your topic.

  7. Ignore your audience
    This is strange advice that contradicts most of what you will hear. However, unless your audience consists of people you know well, you will never know what motivates, inspires, bores, angers, or enlightens the individuals who are listening to you and you can go nuts trying. All you can do is establish your goal and deliver on it, regardless of who is in your audience, with two caveats:

    1. As discussed above, your goal must respect the interests of your audience.

    2. During your talk, you cannot ignore a hand raised to ask a question.

  8. Friends vs. strangers
    Some speakers will advise you to talk to friends instead of strangers. This is futile advice: You rarely have control over who will be in the audience. But how about practicing in front of a group of friends? I don’t recommend it. Your friends have an image of who you are, which may not be the persona you will present on stage and the dissonance can result in unhelpful comments such as, “Just be yourself.” (I don’t know any experienced speaker, myself included, who has the same personality on stage as off.) Furthermore, if your friends truly are friends, they’d rather bolster your ego than give you any useful critical feedback. Speaking personally, I vastly prefer talking to a roomful of people I don’t know. After all, in the words of the folk singer Connie Kaldor in her provocative song, “Get Lucky,” “Ain’t the nicest thing about strangers / is that they don’t know you that well.”

The point to all of this is to force you to focus on all aspects of the process, including you, the room, the topic, and the contents of your talk. Will you have them standing in the aisles cheering? Probably not, but neither will they be booing and throwing things. That alone should embolden you to accept your next presentation. Will you ever overcome your fear? No. No good presenter goes on stage without butterflies and a case of nerves, but once you know you can do it, your fear becomes your friend, motivating you to improve and, ultimately, to achieve the excellence that will have them cheering. Good speaking.

© 2008, allPM.com (www.allPM.com) republished with the permission of the International Institute for Learning, Inc. (IIL)

 

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