What do the words "public speaking" conjure up in your mind? Do you envision being onstage, talking to 50 to 100 people? In another -- perhaps even more important -- version, you might be in a meeting, presenting to senior leaders.
Fear of doing either can damage your career and keep you from reaching your goals.
More than 28 percent of adults in the United States experience glossophobia, or stage fright. If you're one of them, it's time to get over it. There's only one fear you should worry about: failing to voice your point of view loudly and clearly, which will make you look weak and incompetent.
When you don't speak up, you don't stand out. To move ahead in your career, you must display leadership skills and be able to persuade an audience. Having coached multiple executives through their fears of public speaking, I've identified three of the most common wobblies -- and effective ways to overcome them.
1. Fear of damaging reputation and credibility
This is a big one. In business, you're paid for your performance. You want to ensure your ideas are considered so that you are perceived as a strategic thinker.
Here's the truth: The fear of damaging your credibility actually does the damage. One of my clients has represented her large company's brand with external partners masterfully for more than 20 years. Yet she struggles to network inside the company.
When we did a 360 review, every person I spoke to said she does not speak with confidence or competence. Even though she is an expert in her field, she's not able to convert a room. Wanting to be polite, she waits for her moment to speak up. She hesitates when answering questions. In the meantime, much to her manager's chagrin, she loses her opportunity, and people talk over and around her.
Managing this fear is conquered by preparing, knowing your facts, and claiming your point of view. Pivot your points as needed, always drawing people back to the "red thread" that connects your ideas to your call to action. Be confident as you speak, even if you're still ideating. Trust that your confidence and knowledge will help maintain your credibility.
2. Fear of looking dumb, silly, or stupid
No one wants to seem stupid by asking dumb questions. However, the simplest question can break open so much information because nobody else has asked it. While asking something basic may feel silly, it often gets to the root of a potential issue.
Instead, people overcomplicate it by front-loading their question with a heap of unneeded or unnecessary context to demonstrate how smart they are. Meanwhile, the leader and/or the audience gets lost, and then, the speaker actually does look dumb, silly, and stupid.
The same woman in the example above also fears overgeneralizing, saying something that may not be true and, thus, assuming that she will end up looking dumb. She thinks and operates in a black-and-white mindset. Not adept at the push-and-pull conversation techniques, she doesn't reframe questions or synthesize quickly enough to push back on a point. She is so terrified of misrepresenting that it leads her to analysis paralysis and, therefore, silence.
To overcome this, focus on what you're aiming to accomplish in the meeting, and prepare beforehand so that you're not driven by emotions in the moment. Facts speak louder than emotions. State facts clearly and plainly -- letting them stand and speak for themselves -- to keep from overcomplicating information.
3. Fear of not belonging
Even though they have the title, some people still don't believe they belong. They consider others to be bigger, better, brighter, bolder, etc., and are afraid of being called out as a phony or a fraud. This all-too-common fear is called "impostor syndrome," and it often afflicts high achievers who have difficulty internalizing their own accomplishments.
Although her role didn't stretch regionally, another client of mine was promoted to the regional team meeting level. Once there, she didn't speak up in the meetings for six months, which concerned and confused her manager, the VP.
She explained to me that she felt like everyone else's pre-established relationships were solidified. This allowed them to talk over one another and interrupt each other; however, she was a newcomer. Even though she had a massive role and the county subsidiary she was running was known as the biggest performer in the region, she showed up small and, therefore, insignificant.
If you recognize yourself here, do what I advised her to do: To get comfortable before a meeting, network with your peers over coffee, webchat, or text messaging so that you can understand their agendas and form alliances. In the meeting, sit at the head of the table or next to your manager. Use assertive, active language. Do not preamble or say, "I really hope you don't mind...I have a different opinion." Put your hand on the table and say, "I disagree. If we look at your numbers, we can clearly see X, Y, and Z."
Take up space physically. Sit up straight, lean forward, and don't cross your legs -- even if you're wearing a dress, sit widely in your seat. Don't shrink; establish your zone.
These subtle tweaks will help you to earn respect in the room. To master public speaking, you must know your stuff, speak directly, and project confidence. You got this.