Do you know what the number one fear is in the UK? …Glossophobia. Not to be mistaken for a fear of painting your skirting boards, it’s actually the fear of public speaking. The fear can be so great it pushes death itself six feet down into the number two slot.
I understand this far too well. In my 20 plus years in the financial services industry, public speaking and presenting was one part of my job that I used to dread. As the fear grew in intensity so did my creative avoidance tactics. I’d drop my pen on the floor, avoid eye contact in meetings and even take “convenient” convenience breaks just before being called up to speak. Looking back, I gawp at my ridiculousness and at the ‘away from’ strategy I was running – I was doing all I could to get away from the problem.
When I absolutely had to deliver, I’d often think that it might be nice to be a robot. To get a software update to counteract the malware. Something to fix those niggling bugs and defects. Instead, I tried everything that was on offer to us mere humans – presentation skills courses, online resources and spoke to my boss. Actually my boss was interesting. She wanted to help and so when all other avenues had been exhausted she shielded me. She became “in” on the avoidance strategy. At this point the fear was embedded as my truth, I now had the evidence that I couldn’t present. This coupled with many other competing issues had now manifested itself in full on anxiety and panic.
This fear was now part of my every-day life – it even impacted on my role as a Trustee of a charity as I was often asked to speak at events. Instead of the software update I spiralled deeper into the limiting belief that I couldn’t speak in public – EVER. DOOMED.
The lightbulb moment happened for me after I left my job. I was on a Coaching course which is something I had embarked on and was loving the passion I found for this vocation. I had so much to input and yet couldn’t find my voice in this large group situation. I knew at some point I would be asked to volunteer for a demonstration and so 4 days into the course the new subject was announced – “Today will be studying coaching feedback” said Tony the trainer. My experience of feedback in the past had been twice a year when my boss would justify the ratings I was being given for my work. To be fair, some managers were better at it than others but we probably all know the type of manager that “just doesn’t buy into the tick box exercise for HR”.
So when he asked for a volunteer, my hand shot up and I was chosen. I strolled up to the front of the room with my heart beating in my throat, I felt sick but I knew all I had to do was to sit there whilst somebody else gave me feedback. Tony thanked me for joining him and invited me to settle in the chair. Whilst doing so he addressed the audience again “So, coaching feedback is very different to normal feedback in that it is very likely the feedback I have for Kerry is the same that she would have for herself. He went onto say “as a manager it is so much easier if people feel in control of their own development plan with just a little guidance from the coach.” I remember starting to shift awkwardly in the chair. “Please watch this demonstration and pick up on the few questions I ask Kerry. In fact the more we get from Kerry in the next 30 minutes the better.”
The tension grew – how wrong had I got this one. I could feel the burning redness of my chest as it crept up into my head, my veins felt as though they were going to burst. I had the fight or flight emotion – could I run? Not really an option. Tony was taller than me – fight wasn’t an option either haha. I willed myself to have the strength to continue and that’s exactly what I did. Amazingly, we focussed on the positives for some time – not something I had really ever reflected on. Questions such as what had worked well for me? What had I been proud of over the first 4 days of the course? and What legacy did I want to leave on the course? Then came the question “and what would you do differently?”. The answer was easy – I wanted to input in group settings and I wanted to be able to tell people about the wonders of coaching. In that moment I set myself a goal to find my voice again. It sounds so obvious to me now but back then it was a bolt out of the blue. I had a new strategy – focussing on what I was passionate about and what I wanted to tell the world about. The rest is history – I’m now a public speaker. I embrace the butterflies I get about speaking to groups of people.
Expectations are high and the pressures we put on ourselves can be excruciating but the truth is we are people, not robots. The good news is if something isn’t working for us we don’t have to shut down and restart, we can simply create a better strategy…