Would you rather do anything than Talk. In. Public? Three speech-phobic writers went on a mission to find their voices...
Have you got glossophobia? Nope, not a strange aversion to shiny surfaces – it’s the name given to the fear of public speaking. And, despite our sociable jobs (post-work events and breakfasts with near strangers are the norm), a few of us on the DARE desk have struggled with speeches. While it doesn’t come out to play on most days, if we’re asked to give a presentation, it’ll manifest itself as physical symptoms. You know, wobbly voice, racing heart, shaky hands – in fact, sheer panic. So, we set out to see if there was anything that would cure it, or at least help us to manage our nerves. After
all, as Mark Twain famously said, ‘There are only two
types of speakers in the world: those who get nervous and those who are liars.’ Here’s what happened...
Natalie Ticehurst, deputy editor, tried hypnotherapy
I’m not sure when my fear of public speaking set in (well, at least I wasn’t until I met Gordon Matthews, my hypnotherapist, who tapped into my subconscious and helped me track down the moment).
I was always the first with my hand up at school, and drama class was my thing. But somewhere along the way I became muter. Thing is, I have to be ‘on’ during client meetings, and our company is BIG on team presentations. I didn’t want to go through life feeling physically sick at the thought of speaking up, especially at this stage of my career. A wee young thing I am not.
Gordon Matthews, director at The Clerkenwell Group City of London Hypnotherapy (cityoflondonhypnotherapy.co.uk), is a cognitive hypnotherapist and uses a number of tools to help retrain your subconscious. ‘The unconscious mind is just sitting there to look after you. It doesn’t rationalise,’ he explained during my first session. ‘So, when you’re asked to public speak, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. You’ve convinced your brain that it doesn’t want to do any form of public speaking – so we need to rewire it.’
While Gordon gives me lots of techniques to try – focusing on my peripheral vision rather than particular faces (I get anxious about people looking at me – it must mean they’re judging, right?), stopping negative thoughts in their tracks and visualising it going well before the big day – it’s the timeline technique that makes the difference. This involves Gordon putting me in a trance – I’m told we can stop at any time, and it feels just like meditation – and taking me back to the moment it all set in.
I give words of wisdom and advice to my younger self that would have helped her at the time, such as ‘it’s not a big deal’ and ‘everyone gets nervous’, and then we come back to the present day. Likewise, we go to meet future me, and I see her confidently speaking on a panel (a girl’s got to dream big, right?). I don’t realise until after the trance, but Gordon is anchoring these positive feelings with a squeeze on my knuckle at crucial times. He tells me that when I squeeze it after the treatment, the positive feelings will flood back.
It works. OK, so I wasn’t exactly Michelle Obama levels of brilliant when we put our techniques to the test at a company presentation, but I wasn’t anxious in the run-up to it, and while I was talking, the nerves were nowhere near as crippling as they had been before. I’d happily take the stage again now – something I never imagined saying.
Annie Whitfield, editorial assistant, tried improv
I’ve always found public speaking a challenge. If you were to ask any of my secondary school friends, they would happily tell you about that one time I tried to deliver a five-minute presentation to my ICT class and stumbled on every word, resulting in me having to acquire a spare school shirt from the lost-and-found box as mine was doused in sweat. Since that day, I’d avoided speaking in public.
Cut to a few years later, and I was sent out to try an improv session for this project. The aim was to cure me of my overwhelming glossophobia and, post-improv, test out my newfound skills at a company presentation.
Now, I won’t lie, I found improv daunting. Quite a lot of the people who attended the class at The Free Association London (thefreeassociation.co.uk) seemed very confident, and I felt a bit overwhelmed. But after a few warm-up exercises, I realised we were all here to better ourselves in one way or another.
We were taught to say no to the niggling voice in the back of your head that tells you you’re going to mess up. Our coach showed us how to appear comfortable in our bodies and to get used to hearing our voices out loud and solo. We were also taught the importance of ‘rolling with your mistakes’ and accepting that we are all only human. That confidence was one of the main things I took away from improv – it calmed me down before the big presentation and gave me the push I needed.
Thankfully, the presentation was quite a success, free of stumbles and excessive perspiration – so I reckon improv worked pretty well for me. Not so well that you’ll be catching me at your local comedy club, though. I think that would result in sweaty school shirt round two.
Mollie Hammond, beauty writer, tried a speech workshop
‘But you can’t have a fear of public speaking – you’re one of the chattiest people I know,’ my best friend tells me when I explain the purpose of this project. Sure, I’m probably the loudest among my friends on a night down the local, but get me in front of my colleagues for a formal presentation and my legs go full-on Shakin’ Stevens.
I’d arranged to meet Gilly Sharpes, principal coach at the London Speech Workshop (londonspeechworkshop.com), who covers everything from helping people speak up in meetings to overcoming the dread of wedding speeches. ‘We aim to help you understand what makes a powerful communicator, and how to develop your innate skills to that end.’
Gilly started by filming me reading an extract from a book, which when played back was pretty boring. We then worked on the four components of constructing an interesting landscape for your listener: word power, how you say what you say, what your body says, and verbal communication. I practised these, Gilly recorded me again, and the difference was glaringly obvious.
At the company presentation a week later, I was calm. Before, a 70-strong crowd would have sent me into a mini meltdown. With the tools I’d learnt, I spoke confidently – as if I knew what I was talking about. Success at last!