Public speaking, private fears; As giving a good talk becomes more important, experts offer advice on coping with stage fright

October 7, 2013 4:34 pm

Public speaking, private fears

By Rhymer Rigby

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once joked about a study that suggested people’s number one fear was public speaking: “Go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” There is no shortage of research suggesting that the fear of public speaking – otherwise known as glossophobia – enjoys a prominent place in most hierarchies of dread. “It is significantly outside the average person’s comfort zone,” says Michael Crom, chief learning officer of Dale Carnegie Training. “You need to be prepared for anything.” He recalls giving a talk to a medical conference: “I was the last speaker. It was late and the person before me ran over and they were starting to shut things down. So I suddenly had no PowerPoint or visuals.”For many people, losing the crutch of PowerPoint in front of an audience itching to get away would be an occupational nightmare come true.

Geoff Church of Dramatic Resources, a business training company that uses techniques from the stage, notes that people’s reluctance when it comes to public speaking can lead to ridiculous situations: “You see people work for a month on a presentation and then they decide who is going to speak in the cab on the way over to the client.”

“Stage fright comes from all sorts of sources, but mainly a lack of experience,” says Paul Edwards, a professor at the school of information and department of history at University of Michigan. “One of the [other] reasons people are bad is that they see bad models – other poor speakers around them – and they learn bad habits and patterns.”

Good and bad business speaking

Most bad business speeches are not howling gaffes or stage deaths, they are just dull – so dull that people forget about them. In fact, many of what are thought of as awful speeches are decent speakers saying the wrong thing.

One high-profile speaker who has been mocked for his oratory is Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s outgoing CEO. Onenotable incident was a presentation in which he jumped around the stage before declaring his love for the company. Another strange moment was his tearful farewell this year – although the audience was largely sympathetic (perhaps because it was a farewell speech).

Sadly for Mr Ballmer, his rival, the late Steve Jobs, was largely rated as a very good speaker, as he showed with his 2005 Stanford Commencement speech.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, took her place among the great and popular business speakers with her speech to the TED conference in 2010 about why there are too few women leaders.

Other well-regarded business speakers include Warren Buffett, famous for his folksy style, and the surprisingly amusing and sharp Ben Bernanke.

Also, because most people have to to do it infrequently, they tend to view public speaking as children view exams – as an ordeal to get over, rather than an opportunity to shine.

Another problem is that businesspeople tend to view themselves as good communicators. They often are good in meetings or social situations but these are not the same as public speaking.

Nick Smallman of Working Voices, a communication and presentation skills consultancy, says few people do anything to tackle their fears because they fail to appreciate fully the value of good speaking. “They don’t think about the good PR it generates,” he says.

Mr Church recommends asking yourself what someone looks like when they are up on stage, commanding an audience. “People assume that if you can speak well you are a leader, regardless of whether you are or not. It’s quite unfair really.”

Done well, public speaking also offers an opportunity to look impressive in front of people you do not normally encounter.

Moreover, Prof Edwards notes that the rewards are likely to grow because the proliferation of online video presentations and things such as TED talks means we are moving towards a more oral culture.

Mr Smallman likens the skill to learning to ride a bicycle: “You just need to retrain your brain. You need to practise, but once you learn, you never fall below that line – and it’s something you no longer need to worry about.”

Furthermore, because most people are so bad at it, you merely need to be OK in order to shine. “There’s a kind of conspiracy of mediocrity,” explains Mr Church. “You put the slides in the right order and people will say it’s fine. But it’s not, really – and so if you actually do it well, people think you’re brilliant. The rewards are entirely disproportionate to the effort you put in.”

When it comes to improving your public speaking skills, the basics break down into two categories: what you say and how you say it. While these two things play off each other, it is the former that is considered more important. Bearing that in mind, here are some tips to help you prepare for a talk or speech:

● Make sure you know your audience and then write with them in mind. “Sentences which are good on paper are often bad when spoken as they can be long and complex,” notes Prof Edwards.

● Think in terms of narrative, such as personal stories that bring subjects alive, and repetition. Most people will only take away three points from your speech, so there is no point covering nine.

● Prepare more material than you need. This will make you confident and will come in handy if there is a Q&A afterwards.

● Practise – whether alone or in front of colleagues and family. It is the best way to deal with nerves. Bob Etherington, author of Presentation Skills for Quivering Wrecks says: “When practising, videoing it can be a good idea, but don’t practise in the mirror as watching what you’re doing while you’re doing it can be very distracting.”

● Do not read off a script. Doing so will make it difficult to connect with your audience. Notes are OK, and you should not try and learn your talk off by heart.

● Do not be tempted by an autocue. “The reason newsreaders look good reading an autocue is because they’re trained to do it,” says Mr Etherington.

● Recognise the difference between formal and informal communication. One of the biggest things here is getting rid of “vocalised pauses” – ums and ahs. Martin Newman, a coach who has worked with David Cameron, UK prime minister, and Vodafone chief executive Vittorio Colao, explains: “When you’re speaking in a meeting, these are saying: ‘I’m still thinking so don’t interrupt me.’ But as a speaker you won’t be interrupted anyway.”

● Make the signposting very clear. When you speak in a group, the thread of your conversation is shaped by questions, queries and interjections from others. Public speakers need to compensate for the lack of this.

● Anticipate questions your audience might have and address them during your talk. This way people feel as if they are having a conversation with you.

● Vary your pitch and emphasis and watch your body language too. “Make sure you stand strongly,” says Mr Newman. “Think about how guitar heroes like Brian May stand. You want to be planted like that.”

● Dump or at least pare back the PowerPoint presentation. This often acts as the visual equivalent of management jargon, providing a veneer of professionalism but obfuscating the message. If you read off slides, it will sound like you are reading – and complex slides are distracting. “A presentation comes alive when you stop using PowerPoint,” says Mr Etherington.

● You need a strong finish. Most people get to the end and say, “I guess that’s it”, and their body language collapses. Mr Etherington suggests a summary, then a call to action: “People expect to be told to do something at the end of a speech. Leave them singing your song.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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