Don’t Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking;
Instead, Enjoy your next Presentation
by Zainal Abidin Rahman

Is it possible to enjoy making a presentation? Especially with strangers or, worse still, with your boss in the audience?

Almost all the answers I received when I asked my clients this question were a definite “NO”. One HR Manager who called on me to conduct a public speaking workshop for her staff admitted she herself has the fear. “Who like to make presentations?” she lamented in a moment of candour. Unknown to her, she may have been unduly influenced by the American study that put fear of public speaking ahead of the fear of heights, insects, death etc. Subconsciously, she may have concluded if this is true for ugly Americans, what more we docile Asians? Nevertheless, the irony may not be lost on her since she realised enough on the importance of presentation skills for her to get her staff trained.

So why do I call my basic presentation skills workshop The Joy of Presenting?
A friend cynically explained that perhaps years ago I found enlightenment in a popular book The Joy of Sex written by Alex Comfort. Not really, but well - that’s a topic for another article.

I called my workshop Joy of Presenting because I sincerely and truly believe that it’s possible, and indeed highly desirable, to enjoy making your next presentation. The rationale is simple enough: If you enjoy running, you’re likely to be a good runner; so if you enjoy making a presentation you’re likely to be a great presenter, or at least have the makings of one. And I know of many people who derive great fun out of making presentations. Coming from a background of avoiding public speaking myself, I have come a long way in transforming my own beliefs. (Anyway, recent research linking unpleasant tasks to stress to cancer should be enough to change anyone’s mind.)

I grew up very much influenced by my teachers (read imprinting in NLP). One day, exasperated by the noise her students were generating in class, my favourite English Literature teacher Mrs Vaz scolded the entire class and remarked that “boys should learn to be quiet – you should aspire to be strong silent men - because only strong silent men get results.” Since John Wayne and Clint Eastwood were popular screen heroes during my childhood, somehow I made the connection. I soaked on the advice and developed the stoic silent personality.

A stoic silent personality, I later discovered, is great for screen heroes and lighthouse keepers and corporate work horses. In the corporate office, the silent personalities don’t get heard. And that was what I discovered six months into my first job after university. Recognition and rewards usually go to those who were able to speak up at meetings and briefings. Transforming to a more gregarious personality willing to stand up and deliver was the only solution. Joining Toastmasters International and volunteering to be the masters of ceremonies were among the ways to make the change. However, it was hard work and often you don’t get good advice or role model.

Then I learned NLP and changing deep-rooted beliefs and habits got easier. The path for others need not be that tough or long. Bert Decker described the path as going through the following 4 stages, each with its own label and peculiarities:

Stage 1: The Non-Speaker
Emotion: Terror; panic
Behaviour: Rarely speaks in front of groups, usually comfortable one-on-one.
Attitude: Passive, giving excuses
Position: Works in a job that doesn’t require high-level communication skills; usually low status.

Stage 2: The Occasional Speaker
Emotion: Fear but not panicky
Behaviour: Speaks occasionally. Can be coaxed but never volunteers
Attitude: Active reluctance. Growing awareness of the importance of speaking/presenting in front of groups
Position: Front-line doer

Stage 3: The Willing Speaker
Emotion: Tension, Anticipates rather than dreads
Behaviour: Speaks often. Readily speaks his/her minds at meetings
Attitude: Willing to present
Position: Management with proven ability

Stage 4: The Communicator
Emotion: Stimulated about speaking. Enjoys the interactions and feedback (not to mention the applause).
Behaviour: Speaks often
Attitude: Enthusiasm. Jumps at the chance to speak
Position: Leadership.

The reason many people don’t like giving presentation is that they don’t see themselves good at it. Their logic is “I am not good at this; I don’t want to let people see me when I am no good; therefore I don’t enjoying doing it.” It’s a form of self-deception as the Arbinger people would put it. The truth is you don’t have to be a great presenter to enjoy making a presentation and so long as you avoid it you’ll never be a great presenter. So enjoy it first and gradually through sheer practice, you will be great.

How then can we enjoy making a presentation?

The answer is simple and has only 2 requirements.

1 Enjoy meeting people and serving to influence them through sharing the information or knowledge you have.

And we can enjoy meeting people if our primary intention of doing the presentation is connecting with the audience rather than trying to impress them, which is the (wrong) focus of many ineffective public speaking programs. When you set the intention of impressing people, you benchmark unrealistic role models in your mind. It is this personal expectation that stress you out. Attempts at impressing people always end up being superficial.

Where do I learn this? I learned it from lessons in Business English. Contrary to what I’ve been taught in school, I learned that in writing business correspondence I should aim to express my thoughts and ideas to my readers, and to express them simply and directly; not to impress them. To connect with the reader. I realised later that this exhortation to express and not to impress is applicable to many aspects of life including making a presentation. So making eye –contact with your audience is fundamental (remember the saying “He has expressive eyes.”?). Eye contact ensures that you are always connected with your listeners’ moods and temperament. Do you notice that people who like each other make more eye contact than those who don’t? The principle applies especially in a presentation.

2 Prepare for the presentation, even if you are the world’s leading expert on the topic you’ve been asked to talk.

Being prepared is our way of telling our audience that we respect them. Being prepared means giving a presentation that is clear and comprehensible in the given time, especially with regard to the audience’s prior knowledge. Being prepared involved going through our materials, again and again, making doubly sure that the points flow, the transitions are in place, the contents are not overflowing and that the audience get the message you are driving at. It incurs some investment in time prior to the presentation. It’s time worth spent. It’s about respecting our audience.

So there you have it – the 2 requirements to help you enjoy your next presentation. They are basically about changing mindsets. With these 2 requirements you can quickly sail through from stage 1 to stage 4 in double quick time.

“That’s all? But I want to be a great presenter!” you may protest. Now if you want to be a great presenter, which is what people normally gravitate to once they’re enjoying their presentations, then you need to develop a third requirement, which is:

3 Be engaging.
Being engaging means, you are managing the attention and moods of the audience in order to help drive your message using various presentation skills devices. Again, it’s not about impressing others. I think I need to emphasise this point because too many people think they need to be impressive when making presentations. That’s the number one cause for fear of public speaking.

More about how you can be engaging in a later article.

Zainal is a business trainer and coach specializing in personal and organizational change. He has worked with thousands of clients, individuals and corporate, and brings with him expertise in OD, HR, NLP, ericksonian hypnosis, Solutions Focus, Appreciative Inquiry, The Enneagram, energy psychology and various other effective modalities that create change at the personal and corporate levels. Contact:

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