May 22, 2017

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Beating speech anxiety

"According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy." (Jerry Seinfeld) 

Giving presentations and pitches, and speaking up in group situations, is the norm for an account manager. If you are one of the vast majority of people who have a dislike of public speaking, it may give you some comfort to know that you are not alone. However, given that you'll be required to present thoughts, opinions, ideas, strategies, and concepts on a regular basis, it's a good idea to have some tricks up your sleeves to help you cope.

Sweaty palms, dry mouth, shaky voice, blushing, sweating, nausea, racing heartbeat, tight throat and a feeling of general terror before speaking are all signs of 'speech anxiety'. Contrary to what you may think, you may feel worse before speaking to a small group (where you can see everyone's faces, and are speaking to people who know you) than speaking to an auditorium full of people (where it's more difficult to make out individual faces, and where most listeners don't know you personally).

The symptoms you feel before speaking are all a result of a 'fight or flight' response. Your brain thinks you are going into a danger situation and your body is trying to protect you from harm (so, really, you should be thanking your body for doing it's job so well!). Your challenge is to figure out ways to interrupt the circuit between your brain and body so that you can calmly proceed with your presentation.

"There is a famous story about a time when Charles Darwin visited a snake exhibit in a London zoo. He put his face right up next to the glass while an angry puff adder snake tried to bite his face off. Even though the glass protected Darwin, he jumped back every time. In his diary, he later wrote: "my will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced."" (Scott Schwertly, The Complete Guide to Ending Stage Fright) 

Darwin has given us a key to overcoming feelings of speech anxiety. If you can take traces of 'unknown' out of the equation, then there is no need to have an "imagination of danger". Let's look at some ways of dealing with speech anxiety so you can approach your next presentation with confidence.   

Practice makes perfect 

It's an oldie, but a goodie! The more you do something, the easier it gets and the more confident and proficient you will become. We tend to fear things that we have never tried before because we don't know what it will be like. Will I be scared? Will it be painful? Will I look foolish? Once you can see that the experience is (hopefully) not as bad as you first thought, it gets easier the next time, and the next time, and the next time.  

Know what you are talking about 

Preparation is key. Have you ever gone into a meeting knowing you were ill-prepared and then had to speak? Reviewing your notes, having all relevant information to hand, and feeling confident about your topic will enable you to say "I can do this!".

Double-team

Can you share the presentation with someone else? Having someone to mentally lean on works wonders, especially when you know that all eyes won't be on you alone.

Beware using wordy slides

If you use slides as part of your presentation it's tempting to type out everything you want to say onto the slides and then read off them. This is not only the most boring type of presentation you could possibly give, but also reading screeds of text is not a great idea if you are super-nervous. A better idea is to show only one or two brief points per slide and then talk to the slide rather than read off it. This means you need to understand your topic extremely well, but it will help to jog your memory when required, and encourage a much more relaxed and personable presentation.

It's not the end of the world

If you slip up, don't worry. You'll know if you made a mistake, but the chances that anyone else noticed will be so small it's negligible. Even if you did make a rather noticeable mistake it's highly unlikely that any major consequence will result; so just smile and move on, and remember what you did so you don't do it again next time.

Re-define who you are talking to

It's easy to get caught up in the fact that you may have to deliver information to people who expect you to be expert and professional (in both delivery and content). Instead of thinking you are 'presenting to' a group of people, try to imagine you are 'chatting with' them instead. If you can convince your brain to deliver your message as though you were talking with your friends or colleagues, then your audience should also sense that you are at ease and enjoy the presentation along with you.

The only way is up

Look on the bright side: you'll only get better if you have something to improve on. If your first presentation is bad, that doesn't mean that you are a 'bad' speaker, it just means that you are learning your craft, like everyone else who has gone before you. Just tell yourself that your most awful speaking experience is now behind you, and the only way to go is up. 

Give yourself some 'tough love'

Sometimes we have to do things that we don't want to do, even if this causes us to be fearful. Speaking to large and small groups is an unavoidable reality of your chosen career, so there's a strong case for taking a deep breath and just doing it. It's time to give yourself some 'tough love'! 

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Sarah Ritchie
Sarah Ritchie

Author

Sarah Ritchie is the founder of AM-Insider - a website bursting with tips, tricks and resources to create account management superstars in the advertising, design, PR, experiential and print industries. Sarah has been involved in account management for 25 years and has a passion for encouraging, mentoring and helping others succeed.



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