Loud and Clear
By Kathleen Eccles
I trace my own fear of public speaking to reading aloud in front of a college class that included a fault-finding classmate I'd once dated. Another time, visibly shaking while speaking in front of a group, my clip-on earring flew off and rattled across the table in front of me, but at least that broke the tension with a laugh. However, from there, my nervousness snowballed out of all proportion, and manifested itself in two instances where I completely froze in front of boardroom audiences when asked to speak off the cuff.
For Vancouver public relations expert Della Smith, fear of public speaking goes back to first grade when she and a friend offered to entertain their class with a play they had written. They were booed by a group of six-year olds. After that, she says, "I couldn't even put up my hand or say my name in class."
When Nanaimo yoga instructor Beth Hendry-Yim was young, the mere thought of public speaking brought on bouts of nervous diarrhea that made avoidance seem the only sensible solution. No wonder she "didn't want anything to do with it."
In 1972, the Book of Lists famously named public speaking as our number one fear, out-weighing even disease and death. Clearly, those of us who are perennially audience-shy are not alone. In some cases, fear of public speaking can become a bona fide phobia.
According to the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry: Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Management of Anxiety Disorders, "A specific phobia is an excessive or irrational fear of an object or situation and is usually associated with avoidance." A public speaking phobia is just one of many; people can be terrified of everything from flying to spiders to trips to the dentist.
Psychologist Dr. Avrum Miller of the Alpine Anxiety & Stress Relief Clinic in Vancouver says a fear becomes a phobia when it is "unreasonably limiting your daily life, career or schooling. The majority of people fear public speaking, but it's on a continuum. They'll usually do it anyway; others will avoid it and some would rather die." I ask if he means that literally. "Absolutely," he says.
Dr. Miller uses the example of a successful worker of a pharmaceutical company who had to deliver a presentation to his peers. "The anticipation of it was unbelievable. He missed work, had stomach aches, headaches. He was obsessing so much, he was paralyzed. It was so uncontrollable, it had reached the point of phobia."
This type of biochemical panic state, he explains, is fuelled when people "catastrophize, 'awfulize,' and generate worst-case scenarios." They recall past traumatic experiences, anticipating the worst and thinking that everything about themselves is amplified in front of a crowd. Phobias are often coupled with self–esteem issues, he explains.
There's good news, however. As outlined in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, "Specific phobia is widely regarded as the most treatable of the anxiety disorders. Pharmacology is used minimally, in large part thanks to the high degree of success of exposure-based therapies in providing remission of specific phobias."
Public relations veteran Smith agrees with the pharmacology aspect. She once popped a Valium before giving a speech in front of 300 people, hoping it would calm her nerves. She won't do that again. "It was a big lesson for me," she says, explaining that while everyone assured her she did well, she couldn't remember anything about it afterwards.
Today, Smith has completely overcome her youthful anxieties. In 2009, she closed her successful 15-year old Vancouver public relations agency and began offering workshops on social media, as well as crisis and issues management, presentations, and media training. She delivered 45 sessions last year and was recently accepted into the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS).
So how did she go from red-faced first grade thespian to sought-after CAPS presenter? In the 1970s, Smith enrolled in Winging It, an exposure therapy program she credits for helping her speak on her feet. She also took individual lessons with Bernard Searle, a top public speaking consultant in the 1980s, who wrote The Professional Master Mistress of Ceremonies: Emceeing for Fun and Profit. She found Searle's individualized method worked best for her. "He taught me to get more focused in my head, so the nervousness doesn't rule me." In other words, she is now able to turn apprehension into positive energy that adds fire to her presentations.
But while one-on-one work proved most effective for Smith, many others have benefited from the group approach taken by Toastmasters International. Since its inception in 1924, the non-profit organization has grown to 250,000 members with more than 12,500 clubs in 106 countries. Toastmasters offers a graduated program of practice, teaching public speaking and leadership skills through a network of meeting locations around the world.
It was Toastmasters that turned Beth Hendry-Yim's fear around. Married to a Nanaimo naturopath, and keen to get out and help market her husband's practice during their early years together, she accepted an invitation to speak in front of a local church group. Her topic of choice was "colonic detoxification" – perhaps a bit ironic, given her childhood experiences.
"There I was, standing up there talking about bowel movements," she recalls. "I was so well-planned and practised. I had flip charts and hand–outs." Still, her nerves got the better of her.
"They could tell I was nervous. I was shaking, blushing, dropping things and constantly referring to my notes. I went home crying."
At her husband's urging, Hendry-Yim joined Toastmasters. She was taken under the wing of a master, the Nanaimo Woodgrove Club's Harvey Drdul. A member of Toastmasters for more than 40 years, Drdul received a Presidential Citation – one of the group's highest honours – in 2007.
Hendry-Yim credits Drdul and the Toastmasters' group for teaching her to speak off-the-cuff. The program starts with one-minute topics assigned by a Table Topic Master and progresses from there to longer speeches about "something you know." Along the way are awards, ribbons, and other forms of encouragement. "It's acceptance, friendliness and complete understanding that you are not the only person who is nervous," says Yim, who now speaks for a living now, not only supporting her husband's practice but also teaching cooking classes, meditation courses, and workshops.
Toastmaster's Drdul also remembers a time when he struggled in front of an audience. "My solar plexus tightened up. I completely froze." His own fears conquered, he's been mentoring others for four decades at various Nanaimo Toastmasters clubs, using empathy as his number one tool. "I tell new people, who say 'Everybody is so polished,' you need to recognize that all of us started where you are."
Not everyone is a fan of Toastmasters. Smith, who says she's always been a bit of a rebel, thinks it leads to a certain uniformity. "I can always tell if someone is from Toastmasters. There are certain hand gestures they teach and a pattern to the way they speak." For her, Toastmasters is "too sanitized, not enough edge," although she concedes its practise-based approach has helped a lot of people. Her latest source of inspiration is the online speakers' academy at TED.com, plus a collection of about 50 self-help books on the topic.
For those whose fears border on phobia, Dr. Miller suggests more intensive methods such as cognitive behavioural therapy or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Also effective, he says, is exposure therapy in combination with relaxation exercises that focus on breathing to mitigate fear.
"It's the idea that you can only react to a stimulus at a high level for so long, but when your worst fears aren't realized, you can find some level of comfort." Helpful, too, is to become "mindful of symptoms – observing, rather than reacting, to them. People avoid symptoms of anxiety, but if you can sit with them, they will lose their potency over you."
Smith says that, whatever path one takes to becoming a better public speaker, the experience is eye-opening. "Everybody learns something. The audience is not coming to judge you. If you're nervous, it's over in about 10 to 30 seconds. Then they're with you." Drudl adds that through positive feedback and points of encouragement, even the queasiest communicators ultimately become more confident. "We can work with anyone," he says.
Well, I'm sold. In fact, I've accepted Drdul's invitation to an upcoming Toastmasters meeting.