A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Dreading the Boards: The Fear of Public Speaking

What is it about public speaking that makes it the most common of all phobias?

Which is the most common phobia in the world? Fear of flying? Spiders? Heights? Snakes. No, it is public speaking. It is a skill you need to have in order to do well in business. And it can be a nice little earner.

The art of public speaking is a must for any senior executive. It is all about packaging content to become believable, persuasive and memorable. Public speaking can also be a highly lucrative post-successful-career hobby. Washed-up politicians, sports-people and academics long to be on the after-dinner circuit.

A surprising number of people have a fear of public speaking, a social phobia associated with an intense reaction to being evaluated by others. The spotlight effect leads to a well-known set of reactions: blushing, mumbling, sweating, stammering. Yet, as a senior manager, you are frequently called to tell your story, inspire the troops, give presentations and speak at conferences. You represent your team, department and company.

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An essential, not just desirable, skill therefore. No wonder there are so many companies out there offering help and advice. They deliver a sort of presentation-skills-with-therapy: less on slides, more on feelings. Mostly self-esteem management. And nearly all clients say they receive real benefits.

If you are good, self-assured and have held some interesting post or been on television, there is plenty of opportunity. The speaking business is huge and growing, despite the recession. There seems to be an increasing hunger for the sage on the stage. They can be well paid…£5 to £10K a gig is not unusual, and 5 to 10 times that for ‘A list’ celebrities.

There are drawbacks. Significant travel; bewildered and bored audience; dodgy simultaneous translations; and sometimes, worst of all, having to do small talk at receptions and dinners with dull delegates.

Some people are more natural speakers than others. The extraverted; the articulate; the ‘oral’ personalities seem to have an advantage. They have learnt early the power of a good yarn, be it round the campfire, the dinner-party table, or the boardroom.

A great deal of the effectiveness of any talk lies, of course, in the content. But, just as brilliantly structured, witty, even profound content can be spoilt, unappreciated or go unnoticed as a result of poor delivery, so style can sometimes compensate for content.

There are many amusing yet essentially useful mnemonics for the public speaker. Some talk of pace, pause and pitch. Read a sermon you have heard and it can seem thin or rambling. But great preachers know the value of pace. Pace changes: slow for profound, fast for excitement or wit. Taste the words, modulate the voice, gesture to enhance meaning.

Good speakers know also about both forms of pitch: content pitch and sound pitch. The former means getting the content right for the audience – neither too high fallutin’ nor patronising. Equally, it is important that the speaker can be heard clearly.

Pause for effect, pause for reflection, pause for profundity. Too many politicians have forgotten this. In their manic desire to ‘keep the conch shell’ during the Paxman interview, they overlook the power of the pause. Pauses can be interpreted as doubt, dysphasia, dither. But they can, and should, be used to great effect.

Business people do not generally think of themselves as orators. They simply want to ensure they get across an accessible, high impact, memorable message. They are told to Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) and to look confident, comfortable and committed while ‘doing the speech’, even if not written by themselves.

Speech writers do know a thing or two about rhetorical devices. They have ABCs, such as anticipation, balance and comparison. Many have studied the techniques of other great orators.

And there is a list of useful tips to remember. Contrasts are good: the bad past, the glorious future. Contradiction resolution is good, as are comparing opposites. Us and them; the saved and the damned; the path to prosperity and the road to ruin.

It’s good to resolve the problem if it means creating false problems in the first place. And there is a magic number. Somehow lists of three words or ideas have a cadence and a force that two or four do not.

People like stories and anecdotes, even if they bear a fairly tenuous relationship to the truth. Ronald Reagan was a famous exponent of the art. Stories are memorable; easily retold. They can, like parables (now called case studies), have multiple meanings.

But good speech writers have to understand the craft of the poet. This is the art of exploiting and exploring not only the meaning but the sound of words and the pictures conjured up by analogies, similes and metaphors.

First you tell them what you are going to tell them; then you tell them; then you tell them what you have told them. Tweak their emotions by appealing to their deepest values and anxieties. Make them believe in you by heroic visions of a new and better world. Remember the power of the story, phrase or anecdote which becomes the slogan. Smile a lot; look confident

Throw away PowerPoint and creative artists. Learn the art of the script writer, read poetry and great speeches. And practise, practise, practise.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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