How to embrace speaking in public

Afraid of public speaking? Here's an easy way to get started at any age. Speak up. Speak out. Tell us what you see.

A woman speaking into a microphone. [close-up]
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When I lead Master Classes on business presentation skills for mid-career STEM professionals, I often have participants come up to me afterward and say, “I wish someone had told me all this 15 years ago.”  That started me thinking. Why didn’t someone tell them this? Who should have told them? Where and when were the right time and place to tell them?

Employees, managers and executives from all levels of an organization participate in the Master Classes I lead. The classes are offered to companies as on-boarding or continuing development for employees. I’ve also lectured and coached students all the way from technology-magnet secondary schools to mid-career professionals in Executive MBA programs. The vast majority of employees and students experience excessive nervousness (if not outright fear) when they’re called upon to stand up in front of a group and present their work. Chapman University’s annual survey of fear reveals that Public Speaking is identified as a phobia by about 25% of the population at large. My own research shows that “nerves” are identified as a top concern by a plurality of participants in the classes I lead.

It seems crazy that something we are called upon so frequently to do in business remains so painful for so many. How, when and where should we begin to address this?

Start early

School seems like a good place to start. If we turn back the clock far enough, most of us are in school. While I concentrate on the business presentation, and not all students interested in business, the idea of “professional” presentation skills is an easy and near universal substitute for business presentation skills.

Why every school should embrace public speaking is a headline that caught my attention this past week. It’s from an article posted by TES, an education services provider in the UK. Yes, every school should. But “public speaking” embraces after-dinner speeches, toasts, and even standup comedy, so I would favor embracing “speaking in public in a professional manner.” Every school should embrace speaking about consequential matters in public.

Speech, oral interpretation and rhetoric were considered key components of a comprehensive education not so long ago. But I think they’ve largely been thrown out along with the “Great Books” ideal. I took Speech in High School, but as an elective. It was not required. The TES article makes the case for extracurricular engagement in school with debate and speech at a club level. Again, optional.

I think the very fact that they are optional signals that they are not considered to be essential and this diminishment carries over into our professional lives. We tend to think of giving presentations as something we do outside and apart from our actual work; something that takes us away from our work. Presentations are a nuisance and something better left to others. Many of us try to avoid giving presentations and that’s the problem. We then feel trapped (irritated and nervous) when they can’t be avoided.

It’s what we do

We need to begin by recognizing that speaking to groups in our work lives is integral to what we do as professionals and not tangential…unless we have chosen the monastic life. Speaking in public is not something separate or extra-curricular. Leaving the lab, the cube and the scrum to assume a leadership role in any organization requires us to communicate with other people – one-to-many – in real time and real space.

That idea and practice should begin early in school. Being called on in class is not sufficient or even good training for speaking in public. Being called on in class can be anxiety provoking because you’re being tested. If you don’t know the answer or can’t express what you think is the “correct” opinion you are exposed to failure, ridicule and rejection. If this is a student’s only invitation and opportunity to speak publicly, the student learns to associate speaking up and out with anxiety and stress.

More problems

When we confine speaking in public to clubs, like debate club, we tend to immediately redefine it as a competitive sport. As if competition is always fun. This just adds to the anxiety for most people.

Timing is an issue too. At what grade level should we begin? I recommend before and after adolescence (skip middle school and early high school.) That’s the time of our lives when it’s difficult for most of us to separate and stand apart from our peer group. That is anxiety provoking. But it’s also exactly what we are called to do when we stand up to give a presentation. The pressure to conform works against us as presenters when we are adolescents. Younger children are often less self-conscious and eager to please, and young adults are more willing to establish their own identities and rebel against conventions.

We also misunderstand the role and importance of self-expression. Many schools are now adopting project-based learning that requires students to give a short presentation at the conclusion of their project (also sometimes in a pseudo-competitive “project fair” environment.) This has limited value too if the students don’t receive coaching beyond a few tips. These projects are facts, facts, facts and combined with the few tips they just give the student a lot to remember; again, anxiety inducing.

I’m a fan of self-expression. We tend to associate self-expression with creative endeavors – art programs – and with the attention on you. We disassociate self-expression from STEM where we want just the objective facts.

What we should focus on as self-expression is what you see when you look at the world. What you observe from your unique vantage point. When you’re called upon in class it shouldn’t be just to recite facts or the opinions of others that you have memorized. We should all be encouraged and able to speak with distinction and conviction about what we observe and find interesting. That is the beginning of a compelling presentation.

This is something we should all be encouraged to talk about in public and be comfortable doing from an early age. So, the question is not so much why didn’t someone tell us this earlier, its more why don’t we all do this earlier? 

The vast majority of published articles on public speaking are about fear. We can’t go back in time and face our fears and we can’t all go back to school. But we can make sure that another 15 years doesn’t go by. Don’t be afraid. Speak up. Start telling those around you what you see and what you find most interesting.

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