“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
There was a time when I couldn’t have agreed more. But I realised that my fear of giving presentations was really stopping me from fulfilling my potential and I had to do something about it.
I had been recommended for promotion in my job in IT. I had a great track record, enviable feedback from peers and customers and had attained all the technical achievements that were required to move up the ladder and gain a substantial increase in pay and recognition. So what was stopping me? In order to gain that promotion, I would have to present my case before a board of executives, but the very idea made me feel physically ill.
I had struggled for years with panic and anxiety, and as soon as I pictured myself in front of those people, I could feel all the old symptoms rising up: the sweaty palms, the racing heart, the dry mouth. Over the years I had found ways to cope with most of the anxieties that affected me on a day-to-day basis, but public speaking was still unthinkable to me. It was something I was going to have to face if I wanted to get on in my career, but I knew that I was going to need help to get over this major hurdle.
I decided to do some online research. It was some comfort to learn that all of those feelings I had at the thought of public speaking were actually quite natural and common to many people. I came across several training companies claiming they could help people conquer their fears and present confidently within just one day. Frankly, though, I didn’t believe my fear would go away quite so easily. It was simply too deep seated and would require some technique that would delve just as deeply if it was to be undone. And then I found something that resonated with me. I read about the benefits of using neurolinguistic programming (NLP) techniques and it gave me genuine hope. I enrolled in a course.
My training gave me real insight into the way my anxieties had escalated out of control. There was no reason for me to be anything but confident when I knew my subject so well, but the fear which gripped me was putting that confidence beyond my reach. The NLP practitioner had me complete an exercise in which we separated all of the information I was receiving from my senses when I thought of myself having to give a presentation:
- The sight of a room full of eyes all trained on me.
- The sound of my heartbeat as the old panic rose.
- The feel of the sweat on my palms or the dryness of my mouth.
She brought me to the realisation that what was actually happening was that my mind was replaying and amplifying my original panic attack every time I was faced with my phobia. In other words, this was purely an internal representation of the situation which I was creating and I was reacting to that representation rather than the situation itself.
She then established my ‘anchor’ – something which triggers positive emotions rather than an anxiety response – and taught me how to visualise myself hanging onto that anchor while I went through the motions of a simulated presentation. I was amazed how quickly I was able to dissociate myself from my fear using these simple techniques, and by the end of the session, my emotional response to the same stimuli was completely gone. NLP helped me to identify the negative emotions which were taking over and to get them in check. I was able to bring my communication skills to the fore and left with a better understanding of myself. Given my line of work, I chose to see the anxieties I’d locked away as a computer virus, and the techniques I’d learned as the anti-virus program which would remove it.
I decided to put my new skills to use immediately. I booked my appointment with the promotions board and was able present a compelling case. Of course there were some nerves. I had accepted that it would be unnatural not to feel a little adrenalin pumping, but my training had taught me how to deal with this and even turn it to my advantage. I was able to deliver my presentation competently and field all of the difficult questions put to me. The knowledge that just a short time ago, this would have seemed an impossible task propelled me through the session, and a few weeks later I had my reward when my promotion was approved.
Have you had to face a fear of giving presentations? Share your experience and advice.