You may not be surprised to hear that research has shown for many the fear of speaking or presenting in public rates higher than that of dying.

‘Presenting’ is not just speaking formally it could be leading a discussion or putting your point across in a debate. It is difficult for some to do this even with a small group of colleagues or even friends.

Chairing a meeting can also feel very daunting for many and the thought of being a keynote speaker at an event could seem like an impossible task.

There are ways to overcome these fears; they are frustrating and debilitating, but you need to start somewhere.

Change is necessary

I recall my childhood and school days when I would dread the teacher asking a question, and then the silence, followed by ‘Debra, what do you think?’

I couldn’t think. My mind went totally blank, my face went red, and I could feel my heart racing.

Does this sound familiar?

My college days were not much better. However when I secured my first full-time job things began to change.

I enjoyed meeting and talking with others, but I wanted to speak more confidently and not so self-consciously in a group or with people new to me.

I had become a ‘government official’ and at the age of eighteen, and after only six months of training, I found myself sitting behind a screen in the reception area of the Department of Health and Social Security advising claimants on all types of benefits. I had no choice but to overcome my shyness.

What really makes a difference?

It is sometimes the simplest and most obvious changes that can help. It may take some time, and it will certainly need to be small steps. So how did I achieve it?

I didn’t have a choice about the specific role I was assigned to within my new post, but I was considered a fully-fledged ‘Clerical Officer’.

Working on reception was a job that many officers disliked. It was often the role given to new staff or to the ‘hardened’ and experienced officers.

I was a young and inexperienced girl thrown into an unfamiliar world. I had to step outside my comfort zone.

Often people would not receive their benefits on time. With limited technology, language barriers and a lack of interpreters, unemployment and illness, they would come into the office upset or angry to enquire about their situation. They would take a ticket and then wait for their turn before coming up to speak with me at the front desk.

Looking back, I realise that these people made up my first ‘audience’. In effect I was presenting and ‘speaking in public’.

I wanted to be respectful, to try and understand their position, show empathy and to ascertain exactly what was needed. I also had to be clear in my communication. All these skills are required when delivering a presentation.

Top tips

  • Forget about how you may be feeling, be brave and confident, and get on with it – what do you have to lose? If it’s your job there is no choice, or if you want to make a point at a meeting, it would be frustrating not to be able to do just that.

My second position eleven years later was as a medical receptionist for a GP Practice. Again, working with people, but this time with patients and medical professionals.

My job was to find out what patients required. This position also required clear and concise communication in another busy environment, often under difficult circumstances and again with an ‘audience’ in the waiting room.

It was important for me and for the organisation to be considered professional; to be helpful, supportive and provide the patients with what they required.

  • Find out what your audience want and need and provide it. Pose open-ended questions not those that require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Think ‘w’ – start your question with words like what, why, when or where.

How, explain, and ‘describe to me’ are also good words and expressions to use to open a conversation.

My third position was as a business owner.

At the age of thirty-two I opened a pre-school and day nursery business. This was when presenting became a big part of what I had to do. I needed to be a credible leader, manager and professional.

I was employing and training staff, seeking recognition in a sector in which I initially had no training or experience and providing a much-needed service for working parents. I had a wide ‘audience’.

I held parent days, open days, staff training events and held a range of meetings with experts in the field and with local government officials. It was important to find out what was needed by all parties and developing presentation skills was critical, both written and verbal.

Policies, procedures and contracts had to be written, understood and promoted – everyone needed to know where they stood. Staff and parents wanted and needed reassurance.

You may find yourself in a similar situation – what else might be needed?

I studied and achieved relevant qualifications in this field of work.

  • Work on building rapport (a good relationship with your audience), match and mirror. To start with allow 2-way exchange, ask open-ended questions, obtain views, seek feedback and provide thoughts, ideas and solutions. Listen and be interested.

Look at how individuals present themselves and if you want to build a relationship with them adapt your style to suit them – if they are outgoing and lively it is no good being quiet and passive. If they are shy and quiet use a gentler approach when listening and talking. This will help others feel comfortable and put them at ease.

  • Practice and seek feedback

My fourth position was as an advisor and trainer with the local authority.

Presenting was most definitely a skill I needed.

You can now find some excellent resources and materials on the internet and view YouTube videos as well as securing real-life opportunities to practice.

Ask to lead a meeting or to talk on a topic of interest with a group of friends or work colleagues.

Ask a person that you consider to be a good presenter to give you constructive feedback about your performance and whether you got your intended message across.

There are so many ways to overcome your fear of presenting. The more you challenge yourself, the more confidence you will gain and the better you will become.

If you bury your head in the sand and hope that the fear will go away, then nothing will change for you.

  • Be yourself and be authentic – listen first and talk later. In any given situation when a presentation is needed, be giving, ascertain first what your audience are asking but do not try and be someone you are not.

My current post is working as an independent advisor, trainer and coach, working with businesses and individuals. Having worked within a corporate unit in the public sector, for charities, in the private sector as well as within education and health in the past my priority has always been to help and support people in whichever way I can.

I do this in my every-day practice by asking lots of open-ended questions about wants and needs. If I cannot meet the requirements, I do my best to find someone that can. I focus on development.

  • Seek help and support if you need it to boost your confidence in speaking in public and/or with presentation skills. Without help some people cannot achieve their full potential and can feel frustrated and disappointed in themselves.

Get the help that you need to develop your confidence if it is important to you in your work or if you want to develop your self-esteem and be able to converse confidently in your personal life as well.

Additional information

Download a PDF from the Resource Centre entitled ‘Top Tips on Developing Presentation Skills’.

Note: ‘Strive’ offers Personal Development Coaching which can help with developing confidence in public speaking or simply ‘speaking out’.

Read one client’s success story on what ‘speaking out’ gave her: the confidence to achieve her goal.

For more information telephone Debra McAndrew at Strive on 07470 235250 or use the contact form to enquire about the support you may need.