How To Turn Your Fear Of Public Speaking Into A Superpower

Spanx founder Sara Blakelygetty

“I’m about to give a presentation…and I’m so nervous!”

That’s how Sara Blakely starts a recent Instagram post. That sentiment, coming from the successful billionaire founder of shapewear brand Spanx, one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world” and Forbes “most powerful women in the world”, feels refreshingly authentic. If Sara Blakely gets pre-presentation jitters, then it makes sense that we do too.Why Is Public Speaking So Difficult?

The fear of public speaking is the most common phobia ahead of death, spiders and heights. It’s now considered a social anxiety disorder by the American Psychiatric Association and is referred to as Public Speaking Anxiety (PSA) or glossophobia. Statistics about the condition’s prevalence abound with experts suggesting that nearly 75% of our population is affected.

But we speak all day long. On calls, on Zooms and in our colleagues’ offices. Why then does standing solo before a group feel so different?It’s physical.

The same complex bodily response that protects us from danger – the fight or flight response – is at the root of public speaking anxiety. When we are stressed, our body releases stress hormones that shut down the part of the brain responsible for memory. Next thing you know, your mind “goes blank” and you forget that witty opening line you’d practiced so many times.We expect perfection.

It’s common for public speakers to focus too much on the act of presenting rather than on what is being presented. And we worry that we’ll be judged, and a bad performance may negatively affect our image or credibility.We let Impostor Syndrome creep in.

We worry that we may not be up to the task, especially when presenting to people more senior. We may question if we actually have what it takes to sufficiently educate our audience.We simply lack the skills.

The majority of people simply do not feel “at home” on stage. Fortunately, effective public speaking is a skill that can be achieved through preparation and practice.Mastering the Art of Public Speaking

“One of the things that I do before I present, and have been doing for a really long time, is I connect with nature. I feel really insignificant and then it helps dissipate my fear.” This is a great example of a personal strategy that helps Blakely quiet her mind. Here are a few other useful tips.Preview your venue.

Do a test run in advance of your presentation so there will be no surprises that may trigger those stress hormones. If you’ll be sitting on a stage, pull the chairs close to the front to make a more intimate connection with the audience. Take a look at the height of the chairs; that may impact your outfit choice.

If you’ll be standing, consider getting rid of the podium; it creates a barrier between you and the audience. Decide if there is room to move around the stage. If there is, familiarize yourself with the lighting and choreograph some movements.Master your content.

Really understanding your material, and the goal of your presentation, will help alleviate nerves. But don’t memorize your talk. It will sound too instructive and, if you forget a word or line, or get an unexpected reaction from the audience, you may get flustered. Try recording yourself several times giving the presentation; it will be helpful to see yourself the way the audience will see you.Remember, less is more.

Of course you have mountains of knowledge to share with your audience – you’re the expert. But remember, most people can focus for only 20 minutes at a time and can remember just three points at most. So, be judicious in choosing your content.Get creative with your introduction.

That opening line is the hardest; all eyes are on you, and you haven’t yet established a connection with your audience. Try asking a rhetorical question or taking a poll of the audience – this turns the attention away from you.Strike a power pose.

Before you go on stage, remind yourself how capable you are. Put your arms up high and wide and hold that for a minute. It does wonders for your confidence.Learn to control your breathing.

If you find your heart racing before you hit the stage, or even while you’re out there, it’s helpful to have some breathing techniques prepared. It’s best to practice techniques like these in times of low stress, before you actually need them. One method I like is to breathe in for three counts, hold your breath for 3 counts and exhale for three counts.Be memorable.

Your goal with any presentation is to teach, not preach. You want to impart your knowledge in a way that’s memorable. An easy way to do this is by including stories in your presentation. Listeners are 22 times more likely to remember something when it’s woven into a story.Stack the audience.

Get a colleague or friend to sit in the audience where you can see them. Establish a support signal, like a nod, a smile, or a thumbs up. If the nerves begin to creep in just look for that small gesture of support. And even if you’re in a room full of strangers, make deliberate eye contact with a friendly face – it will build your confidence and slow your pace.Accept imperfection.

If you do lose your train of thought, or have a momentary brain freeze, let it go. Dwelling on the negative will only cause more stress, which will negatively impact the remainder of your presentation. Remember, people aren’t there to judge you; they’re there to learn.

Avoidance most certainly reinforces fear. Repeatedly saying no to public speaking opportunities may hinder your ability to grow your personal brand, establish yourself as a thought leader or climb the corporate ladder. Sara Blakely puts it all in perspective. “Even though I give speeches all the time, I still get scared. The only way to build courage is to feel the fear and do it anyway. You got this!”

It’s Not Enough To Tell People To Be Brave. Without Psychological Safety, Fear Will Silence Candor And Crush Courage

Skydivers in Formationgetty

NASA Challenger disaster. BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Volkswagen emissions scandal.

What went wrong?

Investigations produced multi-layered findings. Yet beneath the complexity lay a common element.

Fear. People were afraid to speak the truth.

And so, they didn’t.

Concerns weren’t shared, mistruths were rewarded, and valuable information was filtered down as it moved up the chain.

I regularly speak to leaders who share the importance of developing talent, building strong teams, and fostering great cultures. And yet time and time again, people in their organizations say they regularly hold back from speaking candidly for fear of what might happen if they do.

The presence of fear in organizations exacts a tax that is rarely immediately obvious. Of course, people don’t always die, and companies don’t always go bankrupt or fork out billions in settlements. More often, the cost of fear at play in workplaces is a slow leaking drip of value lost, creativity stymied and potential squandered.

People stop taking initiative, asking questions, sharing ideas, and confiding mistakes. Decisions are delayed, plans are polished….And polished some more. Innovation slows. Silo walls thicken. Problems aren’t voiced.

People play it safe unless they feel safe to do otherwise.

The biggest problems in organizations can usually be traced back to the conversations that did not occur because people didn’t feel safe enough to have them. When leaders don’t make people feel safe to risk their vulnerability and speak truthfully, they put the whole organization at risk. As Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, shared on the Live Brave podcast “Unsafe cultures endanger everyone.”

It’s why psychological safety – a term Edmondson popularized and defines as ‘permission for candor’ and taking interpersonal risks – has been found to be the strongest determinant of high-performing teams.

Of course, leaders play a pivotal role in building psychological safety and fostering what I call ‘cultures of courage’. Every leader is, as my colleague Sarah Jenson Clayton says, a ‘chief culture architect.’ The more power they hold, the more impact they wield. For better or worse.

If leaders aren’t proactively de-risking acts of vulnerability (like pointing out problems), they are inadvertently encouraging counter-productive behaviors that stymie growth and hold potential dormant- in individuals, teams and organizations.

Emotions drive behavior, not logic.

Telling employees to ‘be brave’ and ‘speak up’ only stokes cynicism if it’s not accompanied by consistent evidence those behaviors will be rewarded and an absence of any reason to doubt otherwise. And in an environment in which many people are now connecting remotely, it’s all the easier to hide behind our screens and rationalize caution.

If people have any reason to hesitate before speaking, it reinforces fear driven ‘play-it-safe’ norms. After all, no one ever got fired for saying what their boss wanted to hear. At least not in the short term, which is where our focus naturally gravitates. As Edmondson says “The cognitive calculus errs toward caution.”

While leaders have the biggest role in bending the cultural norms toward courage, every person, regardless of role, can play a role to make others feel more comfortable in engaging in the conversations that matter most (this includes you.) Because just as fear is contagious, so too is courage. Here are a few ways to help you do just that.MORE FROM FORBESBrave Leadership: Seven Hallmarks Of Truly Courageous LeadersBy Dr Margie Warrell

Trade cleverness for curiosity

When Satya Nadella took the reins of Microsoft he saw a need to shift from a culture of experts to a culture of curiosity and went about instilling a growth mindset across the company. He encouraged employees to shift from being ‘know-it-alls’ to ‘learn-it-alls’ and role-modeled it himself.

Let’s face it, none of us know what we’re wrong about. As Daniel Kahneman noted, most people have “excessive confidence in what we believe we know” coupled with an “inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance.”

So make a habit of asking questions before espousing your opinion. Get comfortable practicing a deliberate ‘I don’t know.’ Most of all, listen with an openness to change your mind.

Destigmatize miss-steps (starting with sharing your own)

Bernie Marcus, Home Depot co-founder, always started his weekly management meetings by sharing something he had not succeeded at in the previous week. By openly sharing his failings, he made it safer for others to try new things and scale the learning across the company by freely sharing it.

If you’re a committed learner, you will inevitably make the odd ‘miss-step’ as you fumble up the learning curve. When you do, don’t keep it to yourself. Not only does sharing your learning enlighten others, but you ameliorate the shame associated with imperfect outcomes.

Call on quieter voices so all perspectives feel included

Our brains are wired to extend more credibility to the opinion of authority figures. So, if you are in any sort of leadership role, chances are that some trusting folks will fail to think critically about what comes out of your mouth. While flattering to the ego, it creates vulnerability because, to quote General Patton: “If everyone is thinking alike, somebody isn’t thinking.”

Make a point to actively invite the less vocal to challenge your thinking. ‘

Encourage ‘loyal dissent’

Beyond fostering inclusion is de-risking dissension.

Research shows that the best decisions are made when high intellectual friction is coupled with low social friction. The leader’s job is to galvanize people behind a common purpose and then, encourage people to challenge the established thinking about how to bring that purpose to life. Ask people, ‘What might I be missing here?’.

Sometimes asking for just ‘one thing’ that might improve outcomes can reduce apprehension and yield more input… After all, you just want ‘one thing.’ For instance, ‘What is one way we could improve this process/strategy/product…?’

Respond well to ugly truths and ‘dumb‘ questions

The culture at Volkswagen celebrated bold ambition but penalized not meeting targets. As VW engineers realized they couldn’t meet cost, efficiency, and emissions goals, they felt too afraid to report it. So they lied. Fear of truth-telling drives ugly truths underground. But they never stay there.

Sometimes in our eagerness to reward results, we can encourage behaviors we don’t want and discourage those that we do.

You may not like what you hear, but never make anyone regret shooting straight with you. Responding positively can make a crucial difference for a long time to come. For instance, ‘I really appreciate you bringing this to me so quickly. I’m sure it’s no fun sharing it, but I’m grateful you have.’

People need to believe the pay-offs outweigh the pitfalls

Likewise, if you’re asked a ‘silly question’, don’t make the asker feel stupid (note: self-restraint may be required.) Doing so risks shutting down very smart questions down the road. People need to believe the payoff for being brave is worth the pitfall.

Research finds that the time span between someone identifying a problem and raising it is a strong indicator of top-performing teams. Psychological safety determines that time gap.

Lead from the inside out

Until a leader is secure in themselves, fear will be their chief counsel and they’ll fall short on making others feel secure around them. Examples of such leaders abound. Yet working with people across all levels has taught me that the only thing required to build leadership influence is having the courage to act as one – regardless of title.

Dr Margie Warrell: The Virtuous Cycle of Courage and Psychological Safety Margie Warrell

Courage and psychological safety form a virtuous cycle. To quote Edmondson, they are “two sides of the same coin.” So whatever your position, take it upon yourself to make others feel comfortable in being brave around you.

In every sphere, we need leaders with the the courage to lay their vulnerability on the line for the sake of a nobler cause. Regardless of your title, you can choose to step up and be one of those leaders – showing up with the courage and humble curiosity you’d like to see more of in others, particularly those with the highest positions of power.

You could argue that it’s not your job to lead change. That it’s too risky and not worth it. Yet every time you rise above the inclination to play it safe and actively choose to step up to the plate, you not only empower yourself, you embolden others… And courage spreads – incubating innovation, accelerating learning and avoiding the perils of fear driven behavior.

That’s what I call leadership.

Dr Margie Warrell is a global expert in courageous leadership. As Senior Partner in leadership advisory at Korn Ferry, she helps organizations transform into ‘cultures of courage’ that unlock talent and accelerate transformational change. Listen to her interview with Amy Edmondson here.

2 Ways To Get Rid Of Your Fear Of Speaking Up At Work

While work is an integral part of our lives, finding a workplace that supports not only our financial well-being but also our emotional and psychological health is crucial.

A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology explores the significance of our voice in creating a harmonious work-life balance and experiencing a sense of safety at the workplace.

Lead researcher and professor at Bryant University Zahra Heydarifard discovered that sharing ideas and speaking up at work not only improves our performance but also enhances our overall well-being, including our ability to enjoy restful sleep.

According to Heydarifard, “The expression of promotive voice (i.E., expressing suggestions and ideas aimed at improving the current state of affairs) has the potential to reduce insomnia symptoms by generating positive emotions associated with making meaningful contributions at work. This positive mood facilitates the creation of psychological distance from work during off-work hours, which is crucial for achieving a relaxed state conducive to a good night’s sleep.”

While organizations play a pivotal role in fostering a culture of expression, it is equally important to reflect on the personal barriers that hinder us from using our voice effectively.

Here are two common obstacles we may face and strategies to overcome them.1. Underestimating Your Abilities

Self-doubt can be your worst enemy when it comes to achieving success and harnessing your true potential. Constantly second-guessing your own abilities can manifest in many ways, including thoughts like:“I don’t think my idea is good enough.”“If this were a worthwhile idea, someone would have thought of it already.”“I should stick to what I’m assigned to do and what I know; people more capable than me can execute this task anyway.”

Lacking belief and confidence in yourself can narrow your perspective and prevent you from achieving what you truly deserve. Stepping up requires courage, which can be developed through these practices:Sharing your ideas in a room full of people can be daunting, particularly if you haven’t done it before or have had negative experiences. To boost your confidence and amplify your voice, start small by discussing your ideas casually in one-on-one scenarios or with trusted colleagues to give your confidence and your voice a boost.Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that sharing your idea with your superiors can enhance your commitment and motivation to see it through, as it establishes personal investment. Making your goals and ideas known to someone with more experience could be nerve-wracking, but also serve as a form of self-regulation for your performance.

Letting others in on your perspective may also encourage them to contribute to your ideas and assist you in refining your goals, leading to a more collaborative and successful day at work.2. Fear of Judgment

A study published in the Journal of Management Studies highlights that the fear of being viewed or labeled negatively can also hinder our ability to speak up in the workplace.

The study emphasizes that the fear of potential repercussions discourages individuals from expressing themselves, whether it stems from concerns about appearing foolish, facing criticism, experiencing failure and rejection, or being perceived negatively.

Nobody wants to be subjected to laughter and ridicule, especially when opening themselves up to vulnerability. Nevertheless, there are strategies to overcome this fear and set yourself up for success. You can start by embracing the following two principles:Plan ahead. Preparation is the cornerstone of success. Taking the time to jot down your thoughts and anticipate potential questions or challenges can put you one step ahead and instill a sense of confidence.Practice. The more you rehearse and articulate your ideas aloud, whether in solitude or in the presence of trusted individuals who can provide constructive feedback, the more comfortable you will become with speaking up.

Remember, what you fear today might serve as a valuable lesson for tomorrow.

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