Glen Savage is about to go on stage wearing wings and a halo. He’s terrified.

The year is 1961 and the five-year old Savage is playing the Archangel Gabriel in the nativity play at St James School in Brisbane, Australia. He has just one line: “Come here baby angels”.

Little did he know then, but the fear and anxiety of that moment would go on to shape his entire career. “I just remember thinking that I can’t do it. I can’t speak in front of all those people”, Savage recalls. “I was absolutely trembling just before the curtain went up. My voice was shaky and I stared at the floor… Thereafter I avoided any [public] speaking situations.”

Upon leaving school he became a pharmacist, attracted by the safety of the glass screen that separated him from customers.

Many of us shy away from public speaking – but that fear may be limiting our career opportunities

In 2000, he was asked to deliver some training for the wider pharmacy chain. “Rather than just working with people in my own pharmacy, now I had the opportunity to help develop people in 400 pharmacies. And I thought ‘This will be really great’… until I remembered the stumbling block.”

It was “Come here baby angels” all over again. He didn’t know if he could do it.

Fear factor

Many of us shy away from public speaking. A 2014 survey by Chapman University found a fear of public speaking was the biggest phobia among respondents – 25.3% said they feared speaking in front of a crowd.

Of those who did present, nearly 70% agreed it was critical to their success at work

However, that fear may be limiting our career opportunities. A survey of more than 600 employers in 2014 found that among the top skills recruiters look for, “oral communication” was number one and “presentation skills” number four; traditional management skills such as “managing administrative activities” came down at the bottom. Yet a 2014 online survey of 2,031 US workers found that 12% would willingly step aside to let someone else give a presentation, even if it lost them respect at work. Of those who did present, nearly 70% agreed it was critical to their success at work.

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It’s well documented that people with public speaking fears say it interferes with their life. There is much research showing that workplace anxiety can directly lead to lower work performance. While anecdotally, Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway has described her own fear of public speaking as being “career limiting”. Legendary investor Warren Buffett even credits a public speaking course as directly contributing to his success.

Face time

Despite the world of work being increasingly conducted behind computer screens, career progression is still about being seen and heard. An IBM report advising female managers on how to reach executive positions recommends volunteering for speaking engagements and panel discussions, alongside blogging or tweeting, to make your work known to the rest of the company.

Public speaking is no longer optional in your professional life

Harvey Coleman, business consultant and influential author of Empowering Yourselfidentifies three key factors of career success as ‘performance’, ‘image’, and ‘exposure’. However, they aren’t equally split, he says, with exposure accounting for 60%, followed by image (30%) and performance (10%).

“Public speaking is no longer optional in your professional life,” agrees speaking coach Steve Bustin, author of The Authority Guide to Presenting and Public Speaking.

“It’s an essential business skill that needs to be learned and practiced like any other skill,” he says. “Many job interviews, especially for senior level jobs, now require a presentation to the interview panel”

As video conferencing replaces phone calls, many workers find they have more face time with multiple colleagues not less. “The idea of communicating ‘one-to-many’ is very hot at the moment,” says Bustin. “Some conferences now aren’t flying speakers over, they are setting up a video link, and you have to present from your office.”

The popularity and influence of TED talks has also changed audience expectations

The popularity and influence of TED talks has also changed audience expectations. Initially conceived as an annual conference on technology and design in Vancouver, Canada in 1984 and available online since 2006 under the slogan "ideas worth spreading", the talks have become a cultural phenomenon. Featuring a range of experts talking for only 20 minutes, they’ve been viewed online more than a billion times and translated into more than 100 languages.

Bustin says the skill of these speakers has raised expectations for the rest of us. “You can now watch great speakers on YouTube, and when people go to conferences or work events, they expect the speakers to be that good…  the bar has been raised.”

For people who fear public speaking, that is not good news. Those who present to their peers only a few times a year find it hard to improve, says Occupational psychologist and business consultant Gary Luffman, based in Brighton, England.

“Some of the people I work with might have to present once a year or once a quarter, and in those situations it’s very easy to stick your head in the sand and not think about it.””

Fight or flight?

The reason why we fear it, is natural and deeply-embedded. Our brains are three to four times more likely to see a threat than a reward, says Luffman. “So when faced with a group of people you don’t know… We move to threat mode”.

Our brain then slips into “fight or flight” mode. When this happens, adrenaline is released into the body and the heart-rate increases – great if you want to run or fight, but if standing still this excess energy injection can constrict your throat and lead to blushing and sweating.

Preparation is the secret of speaking success

Preparation is the secret of speaking success, say both Bustin and Luffman. Rather than learning your entire script verbatim, they recommend only memorising your opening two or three sentences, or first few minutes, so that you get off to a good start. After which, use cue-cards or slides to move through the subsequent stages of your presentation.

Luffman also suggests visualising the setting of the presentation beforehand, what the room will look like and where you will stand. “The brain reacts very similarly to doing as it does to thinking.

“So, if in advance, you paint a rich, visual picture in your mind… you start to reduce anxiety.”

There is, however, no substitute for practicing in front of people. Many people have joined international public speaking organisation Toastmasters to practice the skill – including Glen Savage. In 2000, when offered the choice between staying behind his pharmacy counter or standing up and delivering training, he chose to face his fear.

It’s not about you, it's about the audience

With the additional help of NLP training – Neuro Linguistic Programming, which focuses on the language structure and behavioural patterns of individuals – he began to overcome his “limiting beliefs and anxieties”. The turning point was a key piece of advice: “It’s not about you, it's about the audience. For most people who experience public speaking fear, it's based around self-focus, ‘What if I'm a disaster? What if I fail?’… actually, the important thing is that the message gets across to the audience. If they like you, that's just a bonus.”

More than 50 years after his nativity nightmare, Savage walked on stage to deliver a keynote speech at the 2015 APP Australian Pharmacy Professional conference – a four-day conference which attracts more than 4,000 delegates. “I was thinking, this is a pleasure and a privilege to have the opportunity to speak to these people and share some ideas… rather than thinking ‘Oh, this is traumatic.’” He is now a regular conference speaker, and coaches others to overcome their fears.

Does he ever wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t decided to improve? “It would definitely have limited my career. I think I would have just plateaued.”

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