Coaching: Successful business executives overcome public speaking phobia

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:33 pm

You have heard that most people fear death, second only to having to stand up and speak in front of an audience.
I do some presentation skills coaching, so I hear about this anxiety first-hand, and all of the somatic symptoms that go with it. (Some of my clients actually don’t have much anxiety about public speaking – but they’re so poor at it that their colleagues dread seeing them take the floor.)
Whatever lies in the way of you being comfortable and effective at "stand-up work," as I call it, sooner or later, the issue must be faced as you develop leadership greatness. No matter how well you write reports, there are times when the human element will make the difference.
In stand-up work, you have many resources that are not available to you in submitting a paper. Your presentation, after all, is a conversation. You have the advantage of listening to verbal and non-verbal feedback from the audience. Usually you have a Q&A period that you can use for emphasis and clarification.
You have that valuable tool, your voice. I coach clients to learn to listen to their voices and learn to play that vocal instrument by tuning the volume, tone, pitch, pace and emotional expression. We practice until this becomes natural and appropriate to the content and desired outcome.
Your body affords you so much power to connect with your audience through eye contact, gestures, posture and facial expression, even proximity. Clients learn how to be effective when the audience is seated around a conference table, or in a large room where they need to move around to increase interaction with the audience. They learn to relish that connection with the audience and not to break it by, for example, turning around to look at their visual aids.
Part of coaching presentation skills is teaching a focus on habits we all have added to our delivery. These habits can be very distracting, and usually so sneaky we are unaware they even exist. Someone said, "The chains of habits are not felt until we try to break them." Examples of distracting habits are overused phrases. How many people do you know who fill each pause with, "you know?" The brief "OK" can be used as a transition; however I’ve heard speakers who inject an "OK" after every three words. "I was on my way to New Orleans, OK, and found out at the last minute my flight was cancelled, OK…" Other people clutch a podium like they’re hanging on for dear life, or rattle change in a pocket. Audience members start to focus on these interjections instead of listening to the presentation. In coaching, we identify these annoying habits and develop ways to break them.
Of course, all of these skills are not much use unless you have put together material that is interesting to the audience; material that is organized so they can follow it, and that you care about so your personal energy comes through during the presentation.
There are many ways to structure a presentation, and clients learn to do it in the way that best serves the audience and the content. A good presentation starts out with an introduction that gives your audience a reason to be interested in you and what you have to say. This might be a story, an activity involving the audience, a dynamite quote or fact-almost anything if it provides an inkling of who you are and why they might care what you have to say.
There are many choices for developing the body of the presentation. For a 50-minute presentation, with a 10 minute Q&A, I advise speakers to limit the main points. Audience members can remember seven points at the most, and I think three is a good number if you want to leave them with a clear understanding of your talk. Those points can be arranged sequentially, in order of importance (leading up to the most significant), from simple to complex or the reverse-the design is only limited by your creativity around your subject. Always circle back to your outcome. What do I want to provide for them? What do I want them to take away from this presentation?
Back to the anxiety – perhaps panic – that so many people experience when facing stand-up work. For one thing, we just can’t give in to it and get very far in any arena. I know we can make the journey from being nearly petrified before an audience, to having a great time being in front of the room, as they say.
I know about the journey because I made it myself. In my first year of undergraduate school, I was in a speech class with eleven seniors, all young men. I remember standing before those guys and the male instructor with my knees shaking, my voice betraying me completely, my notes shaking in the wind. In the years since, I’ve taught and coached public speaking. I’ve done plenty of it myself with great pleasure. I’ve acted in and directed amateur theatre productions. Even later in that same undergraduate school, I was asked to join the University of Florida’s Blue Ribbon Speakers Tour and had memorable experiences traveling the state.
So I work with clients on re-framing the anxiety into the state of excitement they want to support an effective presentation. Sometimes we work on developing relaxation techniques. This enrichment of speaking skills always involves lots of practice.
I encourage clients who are working on presentation kills to change the way they talk about stand-up opportunities, in their heads as well as out loud. If they used to think and say, "I can’t wait ’til this is over" or "What if they ask about nuclear fission?" they learn to instead say, "I want to be here," and "I know what I know."
There are a multitude of techniques for re-framing anxiety. The trick is to find the one that works for you.
If you have been avoiding this important element of your own leadership development, I encourage you to jump in. Confidence and competency in making presentations can certainly be developed. Then you can expand your influence and give untold numbers of people the opportunity to know you and your ideas.
Jo Hawkins Donovan has a coaching and psychotherapy firm in Whitefish Bay and can be reached at (414) 332-0300, or The firm’s Web site is:
February 18, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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Christine McMahon helps leaders develop strategies and improve speed of execution by developing leadership talent, creating alignment between business functions and improving communications and accountability up, down and across a business. She is co-founder of the Leadership Institute and is in partnership with the WMEP. For keynote presentations, executive coaching, sales and leadership training, she can be reached at:

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