I’ve been thinking about my work a lot recently, for two reasons.
My birthday was last week, I’m now 57. I’m seeing a man in the mirror with more white hair than before. At my age, my dad had been retired for two years already. However I am very clear that I don’t want to retire - my work is too important to me and it feeds me on many levels. I am truly grateful for that.
Secondly, I’ve been asked to speak at a conference in Toulouse this Friday, about what is different in my approach to working with people who are very scared of public speaking, and what I’ve learnt over 16 years of doing it. I’m one of the most active trainers in Europe but I spend a lot of my time training rather than reflecting.
So I thought it would be useful for me to write about my approach, and a good opportunity for some reflection on my work. I hope you find it useful too.
What I do is not just a job.
Every week I get emails like these:
“I have always avoided being the centre of attention and have suffered with low self-esteem all of my adult life.” Sarah
“At the age of 14, I had a panic attack while giving a speech at school, resulting in a phobia which has followed me around ever since. And I have avoided any sort of public speaking ever since. I'm now 29 and I want to progress my career.” David
“From mere terror of the word 'PRESENTATION!' the fear has seeped into anticipatory fear of conversations in meetings and the total impossibility of being the focus of attention, and as for standing up in front of an audience.... when I was still in work, I spent every day avoiding any possibility of being seen. My fear has led to career suicide.” Sue
(I’ve changed people’s names)
These emails wake me up.
They are often written with a huge sense of desperation.
I know that if we can get people to re-think public speaking and be more at ease being the centre of attention, there can be significant changes in people’s lives. We can learn to stand up and be seen. I see my work as helping people take their place in the world without apologising for doing so.
But it’s really hard to learn when you’re as scared as Sarah, David or Sue. And that’s what I’m constantly trying to get better at helping scared people to change.
And this is the reason my approach has changed over the years, gradually becoming simpler, more supportive and, I trust more, effective.
In my approach to teaching public speaking I aim:
1. To help people see the bigger picture.
When people are fearful around public speaking they often have issues around being seen and being the centre of attention in groups. It’s really about “public being” as much as it is about public speaking.
2. To mutually agree strong group ground rules around support and confidentially.
People often remark after my training sessions that it’s been a really safe/friendly group.
3. To offer deep reassurance that what people are feeling is normal and they are fundamentally OK.
Part of this reassurance is built on noticing what we all share as human beings. (Some of that work may have been done before the course starts, in phone calls/emails.)
Reassurances may come from having the following conversations
- What you feel and fear about public speaking is what lots of people feel. and fear. I run 60 courses a year, full of people with the same concerns. You are not alone.
- You are not broken, you are a normal human being. All our brains are a bit wonky. We need to understand that our stone-age brain sometimes plays tricks on us, for good reason, but it’s not very helpful when you don’t live in the wild.
- Not everyone is thinking negative things about you. In fact, very few people are even thinking about you at all. That could be liberating. So you are very special but not that important to people who don’t know you. People are worried about themselves - not you.
4. To explain the psychological/evolutionary origins of why we feel how we do…
… and why it’s rational for the brain to react in certain ways even though it can feel irrational. As one participant wrote recently
“For me the psychological/anthropological explanations work really well. They start to help my logical brain overcome my emotional brain and, to some extent, fear of public speaking becomes a fairly universal, ‘fascinating thing’ rather than a personal failing.”
5. To introduce new ways of thinking...
… about audiences, confidence, public speaking and connecting with the audience. This is, of course, the key part of the training. I have written about many of the things I’ve learnt around this before, on my blog.
6. To break these new learnings into very small simple steps.
The more I learn about teaching, the simpler it becomes. When we first start out we tend to overwhelm people with information.
7. To encourage people to reflect on what they are learning.
A great thing about a course is that it allows conversations to unfold and questions to be asked through the day - so people have time to absorb the learnings. The learning that you get from other group members can also be really powerful.
8. To demonstrate that it’s possible to change (even within the first two hours of a course).
So people feel hope quickly. I also tell stories throughout the day of how past participants were able to change.
9. To model the teachings through the day. To bring a quality of deep respect/love for group members as a facilitator. To be a real human being as I teach being rather than a perfect one, (thank goodness). To share the story of how bad as I was 18 years ago!
10. To carry on being open to incorporating new ways of teaching.
And to deepen my understanding of the subject.
My birthday has been a time of reflection and re-dedication to my work. I have a job that is really more of a calling. Rob, a course participant, recently reminded me of my purpose:
“You stand up for the vulnerable and the shy who should be living life to the full.”
My hope at 57 is that I can still be standing up for those people when I’m 67 and 77.
And wish me luck for France.