Business

How to overcome a terror of public speaking

  • 26 January 2016
  • From the section Business
Media captionWhat's the best way to keep audiences informed, engaged and inspired?

Public speaking is a terrifying prospect for many people.

Speaking in front of an audience even came out higher than death in one survey with 41% naming it as the thing they were most afraid of.

While the survey's results suggest public speaking was at that particular moment more on their minds than the more distant prospect of death, it shows how nervous it makes people.

Jeannette Nelson, head of voice at the National Theatre and author of "The Voice Exercise Book", says the non actors she works with are even afraid of rehearsing, with a lot of them frightened, "really frightened", to work with her.

"Your voice is incredibly personal. It carries your history as much as anything and once you start homing in on that people can be very defensive, quite self-conscious," she says.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Many people feel nervous of public speaking

Regardless of how reluctant people are, public speaking is increasingly required in many jobs; whether it's presenting the results of a particular project, having to speak up in a large meeting, or giving a speech on an area you excel in.

For those at the top, such as chief executives, it's essential, yet there's often little formal training.

CEO coach Steve Tappin, who works with many top chief executives around the world, says it's important for them to invest time and effort in improving their public speaking skills.

"Wise CEOs know that good training can not only help them to become not only more confident speakers but more authentic ones too, and that counts for a lot in an age in which building trust has never been more important," he says.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Simple hand gestures can tell an audience how you're feeling

Top tips for public speaking

Jeannette Nelson, head of voice at the National Theatre, suggests the following:

  • Be aware of your body; the way you stand, the angle at which you hold your head, where you put your hands will all give away to the audience how comfortable you feel.
  • To ensure you are relaxed before speaking do this physical exercise a few times. Lift your shoulders to your ears and then drop them.
  • To avoid the common mistake of starting out loud and gradually becoming inaudible, imagine you are taking your breath from the very back of the room in which you are speaking and then sending your breath back to it. This will ensure you look at the whole room, not just the front row, and will project your voice to the back of the room.
  • Record yourself. Practise in front of a mirror or a good friend to see how you look and sound when you speak.

Andrew Penn, who became chief executive of Australian telecommunications giant Telstra last May, has done exactly that.

As a high school drop out who didn't go to university, Mr Penn got to the top by studying outside of his day job. He says he's continued to place a big emphasis on his personal development, including communication skills.

In the first 12 years of his working life, he spent every evening and weekend studying; working his way through his high school qualifications, then onto a business diploma, training as an accountant and eventually doing an MBA.

Image caption "Communication is probably the most important skill of the chief executive in the modern world", says Telstra's Andy Penn

"Communication is probably the most important skill of the chief executive in the modern world", he says.

He believes all bosses should spend time improving these skills.

'Be yourself'

"One of the things you're trying to achieve as the CEO is to achieve alignment around lots of different stakeholders, alignment with the team in terms of what the vision is and what you're trying to achieve, alignment with the shareholders and stakeholders so you can take them along on the journey."

"So if you can't communicate effectively as a CEO in very simple terms - your vision, your strategy, what you're trying to achieve - then it's very difficult to get that alignment," he says.

However, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, who regularly speaks in front of big audiences, warns that it's important not to become too polished.

"People want real people, they don't want smooth talkers who've been very well trained in public speaking," he says.

If his children ever have to do a speech, he tells them to "just be yourself" and talk in exactly the same way to the audience as if they were sitting in a living room having a chat with a friend.

Image caption The more you practise, the better you will be, says the National Theatre's Jeannette Nelson

Ultimately, Ms Nelson says being comfortable with public speaking is about being comfortable with yourself, which she says will show when you stand up on stage, making it easier to order your thoughts and to come across genuinely.

But in the end it's the old adage: practice makes perfect.

"People want the magic wand. 'I'll do that and everything will change'," says Ms Nelson.

But, she says: "You have to practise with the technical voice work, you have to practise getting to know your body, and you have to practise communication too."

This feature is based on interviews by CEO coach and author Steve Tappin for the BBC's CEO Guru series, produced by Neil Koenig.

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